Without safe housing, women leaving prison face the choice between cells or the streets
The fear of homelessness is so strong, that some women leaving prison are choosing to remain in a cell than face the harsh realities of Britain’s housing market. That’s according to a recent report from the HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), which found that two-thirds of inmates leaving HMP Bronzefield in Ashford, Europe’s largest women’s prison, are being released without safe and sustainable accommodation available for a minimum of 12 weeks.
It’s become so severe one woman slept in the prison’s gatehouse for two nights, with no hope for a home or even shelter upon release.
Access to safe housing for women leaving prison is clearly paramount, but faced with multiple hurdles, protecting this vulnerable group goes deeper.
Women in the criminal justice system are some of the most vulnerable in society. Many have multiple and complex needs, often as a result of trauma from domestic abuse, or suffer from existing substance misuse or mental health problems. This in turn can foster a climate of precarity and create a cycle of offending that too few can break free from.
The availability of safe accommodation for women exiting the criminal justice system is damningly low and poses a major risk to the safety of these women. It is little surprise perhaps then, to hear reports that women are choosing to remain in a cell rather than face the streets or an abusive former partner.
Understanding the housing and support needs of this group of vulnerable individuals is vital. This was something we considered deeply when working with Housing for Women and Women in Prison in our Re-Unite project.
For women with children under the age of 18, the barriers are often larger. With no home upon release, mothers are unable to gain custody of their children because they don’t have a family house, and conversely cannot access family housing because they don’t have custody of their children. It is a merry-go-round of frustration that not only prevents women from rebuilding their family life, but also put them at risk of homelessness and re-offending.
In response to the barriers mothers encounter, Re-Unite was created provide housing and support to mothers and their children
The project offered family housing and support to help mothers reunite with their children and rebuild their families. Across its ten-year span, Re-Unite housed and supported 100 mothers and approximately 200 children. The project found safe housing paired with additional support plays a positive role in reuniting mothers with their children, subsequently helping them positively reintegrate into society and not risk reoffending. For the women supported by the project, only 10 percent reoffended, against a national average of 60 percent.
Upon evaluation, we highlighted the need for clear housing plans to be developed for imprisoned mothers before release, alongside in-reach support from social services and relevant charities such as women’s centres. Preparing safe housing and support arrangements in advance doesn’t only help mothers reunite with their children but also ensures they are not at risk of homelessness or re-offending.
But policy ideas like this can be expanded beyond mothers leaving prison. There are systemic challenges that women face in their successful rehabilitation, and rooted at the heart of this is safe housing.
Once a sentence is served, we cannot condemn women to a choice between staying in a cell or sleeping on the streets. Safe housing options for women leaving prison is a necessity, and it is urgent.