The recent Joint Thematic Review of prisoner resettlement deserves more than a passing headline. Looking at the experiences of people seeking accommodation and education, training or employment, it identifies the shortcomings of attempts to improve the social capability and participation of people leaving prison under supervision. The questions emerging go to the heart of current thinking and policy.
While not delivering a full overview of what is happening nationally, it carefully goes through a series of representative case studies in a way that is both revealing and concerning. Because it has been produced by a team from different backgrounds the analysis is impressively informed by a knowledge of what might be possible if services were better focused and organised.
We have recently published a review of international evidence on institutional care and poverty which echoes a number of the inspection findings. In our review we were struck by the scant data on resettlement outcomes. It was not a surprise to learn therefore that the inspection found poor monitoring of outcomes. More fundamentally the evidence in our report gave little comfort to anyone who is optimistic about the impact of prison-based interventions on the likelihood of a former prisoner escaping poverty. In the inspection it was telling that in none of the cases studied was a released individual following a trade that had been learned in prison.
The critics of the current arrangements have a point when they say that the system is not working. However the claim that a shift in ownership of services will solve the problem sounds at best naïve. Working effectively with people who have multiple needs is always complex: one reason for being cautious about the claims that efficiency gains from private sector involvement will outweigh the profits extracted from public funding.
In the light of the disarray confirmed by this report the biggest question is a very simple one. Is the system the wrong way round? Instead of starting with the prison, and developing a resettlement strategy that somehow inserts the individual in a very different context, should we not be thinking about how an anti-poverty strategy for people with complex needs, based in the community, can include people who spend time in prison? After all it is striking how frequently prisoners come from the poorest communities; a high proportion have been looked after by local authorities who should have been working to support them. Does it not make sense to make them part of a community-based strategy which can plan and distribute resources appropriately? Reversing the starting position would not only provide a firmer basis for thinking about meeting prisoners’ needs, it might also encourage less tolerance for prison population levels: a strong system of community-based provision would support the case for alternatives to incarceration
This is one of the key questions that we will be discussing at our anti-poverty roundtable on 17 November. We welcome participants who wish to explore these topics.