On any given day in Ireland, prison doors open and men and women step out into the daylight. But what happens to them when those heavy doors close behind them? The bleak truth for a great number is that they have no home to go to and nobody to welcome them upon their release. Many will be back inside prison within a year.
The stigma of having been in prison, compounded by the lack of long-term and co-ordinated support and care, can mean that many of those newly released return to their lives on the margins of society, and they may succumb to alcohol and/or drug abuse. This, in turn, has a negative impact on society in terms of crime and anti-social behaviour, and gives rise to significant financial costs to the State.
In Ireland, the incidence of these problems is exacerbated by the large number of people sentenced to short prison terms for relatively minor offences (sentences which are, however, just long enough to disrupt their living arrangements) and the practice of early, ‘unplanned’, release which does not permit people to prepare for life outside prison.
Focus Ireland’s Response
Since it was founded in 1985, Focus Ireland has been conscious of the link between people’s experience of homelessness, the criminal justice system and imprisonment. The organisation has consistently built upon its experience of providing housing and homeless services in order to contribute to the goal of ending long-term homelessness. Its services are targeted at preventing homelessness for those at risk of losing their home, and providing support for those who are homeless and helping them to secure, and settle into, long-term housing.
A study in 2002 by Focus Ireland and PACE (the voluntary organisation which provides services for offenders and former offenders) explored the link between crime and homelessness. It found that 45 per cent of the people interviewed highlighted homelessness as one of the key contributory factors leading to their re-offending following release.1
Ireland has a high rate of criminal recidivism: research by the UCD Institute of Criminology published in 2008 showed that 25 per cent of people who had been released were back in prison within a year and that almost 50 per cent had returned within four years of release.2
A study of reintegration services in Ireland, carried out by the Irish Penal Reform Trust in 2009/2010, noted the multiple and complex issues that arise in relation to reintegration following imprisonment. The study drew attention to the reality that the provision of services to facilitate re-integration varies across the prison system so that, in practice, access depends on which institution a person happens to be detained in during the period leading up to release. Likewise, there is wide variation in the provision of the type of support services in the community which someone who has been released from prison might need to access.3
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Focus Ireland’s ‘Prison In-Reach Service’, provided in Dublin, Cork and Limerick, and run in partnership with the Irish Prison Service, the Probation Service, and the Homeless Persons Unit (of the Health Service Executive), tries to reverse this alarming situation by ensuring that people who have been in prison have basic accommodation and support as they try to adapt to their new-found freedom. The weeks and months just after release are crucial if former prisoners are to find – and be enabled to follow – an alternative to falling back into drug abuse and crime.
If prison is meant to help rehabilitate, then people in prison need to be prepared for life afterwards.There needs to be a resourced and structured programme in place to ensure that people are given full support and a real chance to get back on their feet again following release.
Establishment of the In-Reach Service
Through the experience of its youth services, Focus Ireland recognised the need for a collaborative approach between a range of agencies to address the accommodation and support needs of those who were homeless, or at risk of being homeless, on release from prison. It noted that, in 2006, one-third of the 600 people who accessed its youth services had been in prison at some point. The vast majority were young men aged between 18 and 25 years who had been held on remand or had served short sentences.
In 2006, Focus Ireland approached the Probation Service with a proposal to pilot a Prison In-Reach Service for young men at risk of homelessness in Dublin. Focus Ireland was prepared to commit funding from its own resources for this pilot project. It proposed a ‘case management model’ to support the provision of a seamless service response between prison, homeless services and accommodation, to plan a pathway out of homelessness. The Probation Service had already recognised that there was no structured link between these different sectors, and that a ‘prisoner care and case management model’ could provide a new form of support service for prisoners.
Underlying the thinking of the organisations involved in setting up the In-Reach Service (i.e., Focus Ireland, the Probation Service, the Irish Prison Service, and the Homeless Persons Unit) was a recognition that recidivism, addiction, mental health issues and homelessness can create huge obstacles to a person accessing and sustaining accommodation and needed specialist services.
In 2007, these four organisations set up the Dublin Prison In-Reach pilot project to provide a streamlined service between the remand prison in Cloverhill and homeless services and accommodation, supporting each referred service-user to access appropriate services and accommodation and a pathway to independent living. This partnership approach was vital to getting the service up and running effectively.
The service is preventative, aiming to break the cycle of homelessness, rough sleeping, dependence on emergency accommodation, offending and custody – and then, on release, a return to homelessness. In 2008, Focus Ireland established the Prison In-Reach Service in Cork Prison and in Limerick Prison, with funding secured by the Irish Prison Service from the Dormant Accounts Fund and Pobal.
How Does the In-Reach Service Work?
The In-Reach Service actively supports men and women who have been caught in a cycle of homelessness, offending behaviour and imprisonment. The service is able to adapt quickly so as to meet the changing needs of service-users, both pre- and post-release. The aim is to deliver a face-to-face service to those with high needs and a history of leading ‘chaotic’ lives, and to build up a supportive and strong relationship with service-users.
The ability of the In-Reach Service to adapt to meet the changing needs, circumstances, expectations, and goals of service-users allows for a continuity of support, even in cases where service-users temporarily disengage from the service or return to prison. The model of service delivery aims to be fully adaptable, responsive, intensive and inclusive.
The In-Reach staff generally link in with those referred to the service and arrange to meet them in prison (i.e., pre-release). For example, of the 53 people who engaged with the In-Reach Service in Limerick between July 2009 and July 2011, 51 were met in prison pre-release. On average, four meetings were held with each service-user in Limerick prior to release. There were variations in the intensity of the pre-release work – for instance, one service-user attended 19 pre-release sessions. This reflects the nature of intensive case management, where more intensive interventions are provided to those with greater and more complex needs.
The support needs of people who engage with the service (such as accommodation, addiction, mental health, education and employment) are assessed by the project worker. Based on this holistic needs assessment, a case management plan is prepared in agreement with the service-user and implemented by the project worker. Where the ex-prisoner has multiple needs, the project worker endeavours to liaise with pre- and post-release services (for example, addiction services, education providers) to put in place the supports required.
The In-Reach Service staff work directly with the Homeless Persons Unit to secure accommodation options for service-users, and also liaise directly with other accommodation providers. Without this crucial intervention, the service-users would struggle to ensure that accommodation was in place upon their release. Post-release, service-users are supported by the In-Reach Service to settle into long-term accommodation, engage with their local community, address particular problems in their lives, and reduce their vulnerability to returning to offending behaviour.
During its two-year pilot period, the Dublin In-Reach project successfully supported 57 men to move from prison to community living. A total of 39 of these service-users, who had previously experienced homelessness or were at risk of homelessness upon release from Cloverhill Prison, were supported into long-term housing. In the Dublin area, between 40 and 50 people who have been in prison benefit from this programme annually.
The prevention of homelessness has not always been a key priority in the delivery of mainstream public social service provision. However, this is changing and the importance of effective, quality housing information, and advice in relation to preventing homelessness, is increasingly being acknowledged, as is evident in policy statements such as the national homeless strategy, The Way Home – A Strategy to Address Adult Homelessness 2008–2013, and A Key To The Door, the Homeless Agency’s action plan for implementing the national homeless strategy and tackling homelessness in Dublin.4
Under the current approaches to tackling homelessness, the prevention of homelessness is identified as a key responsibility for all mainstream public social service provision, including frontline services (for example, An Garda Síochána, the Irish Prison Service, the Probation Service, social work services, hospital emergency services and acute hospital services); wider healthcare services; education and educational welfare services; social welfare services, and training and employment services.
This strategy proposes to deliver quality services against a range of actions in order to prevent episodic and repeat homelessness. This requires a combination of services and strategic working by statutory and voluntary service providers which is effective, accountable and is not duplicative.
There have been numerous studies that have provided clear evidence of the cost of homelessness and there are many examples demonstrating that homelessness is more expensive to society than the cost of solving the problem.
For instance, in its Pre Budget Submission 2012, Focus Ireland outlined how taking action to end long-term homelessness and the need to sleep rough would not only help improve the lives of thousands of the most margnialised in society, but would also actually save the State money. The submission pointed out that providing emergency homeless accommodation can cost up to €30,000 a year for a bed, while providing a home with support for those who need it in order to move on from homelessness, can cost, even in Dublin, less than €14,500.5
However, the benefits to society of having service-users engage with the Prison In-Reach project are currently difficult to quantify, particularly in the absence of empirical research into the effectiveness of the service in reducing repeat offending and providing other positive outcomes for former offenders. Evaluations recently undertaken into the operation of the In-Reach Service in its three locations (Dublin, Limerick and Cork)6 recommend that the project partners gather evidence on the long-term outcomes for service-users, so as to be able to substantiate the view that the In-Reach Service, as well as benefiting individuals, is cost-effective.
In the absence of cost–benefit research, case histories can illustrate how the service has had positive outcomes for people who have been released from prison or have been in trouble with the law, and has resulted in significant benefits and cost savings to society.
For example, one man who engaged with the In-Reach Service had previously lived on the streets (i.e., roofless) for many years. He is now living in Focus Ireland housing in Dublin. The man stressed that he would have returned to sleeping rough after release from Cloverhill Prison – and most likely would have returned to offending behaviour – had he not been referred to the project.
Some Key Issues
The evaluations of the In-Reach services in Dublin, Cork and Limerick highlight a number of issues which are impacting on their effectiveness.
One key finding is the value of having dedicated, short-stay supported accommodation units for people newly-released from prison. Where Focus Ireland has been able to make such units available in Dublin and, to a lesser extent in Limerick, it is clear they have real value in assisting individuals to re-accustom themselves to life outside prison. The provision of such accommodation in Cork is a key recommendation of the evaluation.
An issue which impacts significantly on the effectiveness of the service is the practice of ‘unplanned’ early release of prisoners. In some cases, prisoners can be released prior to completing their sentence with less than twelve hours’ notice. This practice is usually driven by problems regarding overcrowding in the prisons. As a result, prisoners who are engaging with the In-Reach Service, and for whom staff members are sourcing suitable accommodation in preparation for their release, can suddenly find themselves on the outside. Meanwhile, their project worker may not even be aware of their release.
It is recommended that a ‘dual notification’ policy should be put in place to ensure that notification of an unplanned release is provided to the prisoner and to the staff of the In-Reach Service at the same time. This would prevent the repeat of a number of instances where service-users have had to sleep rough on their first night out of prison, as the In-Reach team was not aware of their release.
It is evident that among the users of the Focus In-Reach Service there is always a small number of people who have multiple and severe problems, which may include addiction, mental health issues and/or homelessness. Some of the men in this situation may not previously have engaged with any services.
People with such severe problems need a very high level of support. The case management approach provided by the In-Reach Service can help them gain access to a range of specialist supports but this entails multiple meetings pre-release and ongoing and intense support post-release. The role which the In-Reach Service plays in supporting these men is clearly of vital importance, if they are to avoid becoming trapped in a cycle of crime, homelessness and imprisonment. Focus Ireland believes that for men such as these – with high-level needs and a history of chaotic behaviour – the Service will be required on an on-going basis.
The supports provided by the Community Welfare Service (i.e., supplementary welfare allowance, rent allowance and exceptional needs payments), are obviously critically important for people leaving prison who have no source of income and/or who are facing homelessness.
In recent years, Community Welfare Officers, who administer these schemes, have been providing an in-reach service to prisons across the State, which means that, for people who are due for release, arrangements can be put in place to facilitate the payment of income support and rent supplement after they leave prison. This is a significant and very welcome development. Nonetheless, there remains the problem that, where early and unplanned release occurs, people who have been in prison may experience delays and difficulties in obtaining these vital services, thus increasing their risk of becoming homeless and/or falling back into criminal behaviour.
The group of people, already referred to, who have particularly severe and complex needs, may have great difficulty in successfully applying for, and continuing to fulfil the conditions for receiving, the services – such as income support and rent supplement – provided by the Community Welfare Service. Their chaotic lifestyle (often due to addiction and/or mental health problems) may mean that even when they have succeeded in obtaining such services they may lose them again (due to a breakdown in their accommodation arrangements, for instance.)
This situation presents significant challenges for both the Community Welfare Service and the In-Reach Service. However, these challenges can be overcome once the more intensive support provided by In-Reach is in place for people in this group. The case management approach of In-Reach helps to bring an essential stability into what were previously chaotic lives. The Service can also ensure that even where people experience relapses or set-backs there are supports in place to prevent them falling into back a pattern of crime and homelessness.
The partnership approach adopted by Focus Ireland, the Irish Prison Service, the Probation Service and the Homeless Persons Unit in providing the In-Reach Service has proven to be effective. Focus Ireland believes the learning gained from running the In-Reach Service in partnership in Dublin, Cork and Limerick will help the service to develop so as to address the specific needs of its client group even more effectively in the future.
Finally, it is important to note that the proposed roll-out of Integrated Sentence Management (ISM) in prisons aims to lead to a more systematic approach to identifying the needs of prisoners and aspires to adopting a more targeted, planned and intensive response to these needs. This may present an opportunity for the In-Reach services to further integrate into the pre-release system.
Roughan MacNamara is Advocacy Manager with Focus Ireland.