Having recently read an important and stimulating addition to the literature on prisoner re-entry I was sharply reminded of a past experience which centred on one of the many practical challenges of coping after release from prison.
That is, how to manage in the first few weeks in the community on a meagre allowance of £46, known as the prison discharge grant. This perennial issue of how to survive on such an allowance, turned into one particularly memorable day, after I was contacted by the late and highly esteemed BBC Newsnight journalist, Liz MacKean.
The voice of a released prisoner
I had been an active member of the probation union, Napo and had by then built up a useful network of media contacts. Yet I had not anticipated this opportunity. It meant that I would need to enlist the assistance of one of my clients to give an authentic voice of a released prisoner, someone who had struggled to cope on such an allowance and was prepared to speak to the media.
I need not have worried as Logan (not his real name) who had just been released from a prison sentence on licence, and who I was supervising at the time offered to appear on the programme. "They can pay me later," he blithely opined. Logan had been on the point of moving into a homeless hostel, accommodation that had been arranged pre-release. His story fitted in well with the media narrative on the shortfalls in income, lack of access to benefits and the demands of resettlement for those newly released from prison. This largely invisible penal issue was adroitly handled by Liz, who I recall offered a calmly reassuring and knowledgeable presence. The initial filming took place within the probation office.
The second strand of filming was due to take place later in the day (as the programme was due to be aired in the evening) and I had arranged to link up with Logan outside the hostel so that he could be interviewed and I would then be featured in incidental shots. I had already offered some of my observations during the earlier filming at the office. Shortly after arriving at the hostel, I was notified that Logan had not been seen for some hours and I felt a sinking apprehension that he might have "got cold feet" as he had earlier shared with me some of his residual misgivings about appearing on TV.
Logan appeared just before the TV crew were preparing to leave and declaimed to the huddle of people now encamped outside the hostel on a busy central London street, "Mike wants me to tell you what it’s like living on the breadline after being inside and this is why I came back". Liz smiled benignly and the filming went ahead without further interruption.
A puny discharge grant
When filming was completed I awaited that evening's Newsnight programme with keen interest and anticipation. Logan's telling contribution was used as an informed introduction to what I recall was a rather combative and testy discussion between Mark Leech (now editor of The Prison Handbook) and Martin Narey (former Director-General of the Prison Service).
By chance I was attending an event the following day on prisoner resettlement and happened to meet up with Mark Leech, who I had once corresponded with whilst he was a serving prisoner and whose tenacious campaigning on prison reform and resettlement I had long admired. He complimented me on offering a probation perspective and on Logan for articulating in a moving manner the " ****** disgrace of a puny discharge grant that aims to reduce crime but actually increases it".
I conveyed this to Logan when we next met at the probation office, and enquired as to whether he had seen the programme. "I’m waiting until I finish my sentence and then I will give Liz a call". I never did find out if this promise was fulfilled, but I had a heartfelt feeling that she would have said, if that call had come, as she said to me, when we finished filming, "This is too important a topic for all of us not to be in the public eye".