Over the last 20 years the UK prison population has almost doubled. With a squeeze in the public purse, one of the casualties has been projects that support people out of prison and back into their communities. The current adult reoffending rate stands at 47 per cent, so what is being done to understand the barriers facing people leaving prison and what help is there to overcome them?
One project in Devon, run by EDP Drug and Alcohol Services (now part of Humankind) is working to provide intensive, tailored support in the weeks that run up to – and on the day of – a prisoner’s release, and it is attracting the attention of funders and commissioners alike.
The Departure Lounge is based at HMP Exeter, a busy remand prison where an average of 92 prisoners are released each month. EDP Drug and Alcohol Services has worked with a range of community partners for over three years to design and trial innovative, holistic ways to support the transition from prison to community. The result is the highly successful Check Out and Departure Lounge services that are commissioned by the South West Reducing Reoffending Partnership.
There is a lot to plan in supporting someone back into society from the prison environment. They must secure housing and employment, check in with probation, reconnect with families and with communities and life outside, and for some they also have to connect with their local substance misuse service. All of this can be extremely daunting and even overwhelming. Staff use the conversations they have in the Check Out Lounge about the support on offer as a way to identify those with the most complex needs. They can then tailor the support accordingly.
It can be notoriously difficult to get people to open up about their situation and reach out for help, which is why the Departure Lounge team have nurtured mentors to play the role of reducing reoffending champion. They instigate conversations with the men and encourage them to see the benefits of becoming actively involved in their own release. If someone is feeling particularly anxious, they sit with them while they have their conversation with a support organisation to ensure that their voice is heard and understood.
The Departure Lounge’s current reducing reoffending champion (RRC) says ‘from my experience, most people re-offend due to lack of support and accommodation so they get influenced by doing the wrong things to survive. However, most prisoners are keen to become a better person and also be supportive to the community if given the opportunity’.
The RRCs provide support on a number levels – instigating conversations, helping to fill out forms when people can’t read or write, signposting people to the correct support, passing on experience and knowledge or sometimes just providing a prop for people feeling anxious.
Check Out Lounge
The journey out of prison at HMP Exeter begins a month or so before departure day. Prisoners due for release are invited to the Check Out Lounge, a space for prisoners to meet with many of the agencies that they will need to engage with on their release. These meetings are a combination of in-person, telephone and video conference. Men can call out to these agencies on designated days and speak to specialist staff who will ensure that they are well prepared for the challenges and logistics of integration back into their local community.
Throughout the year there are also a number of hosted conversations with key support organisations. These used to be as part of a community fayre, where men could circulate around the room and ask questions of community organisations including housing, employment, education, substance misuse and debt management. Since COVID these have been done via phone out, from people’s cells and also by video link from the legal video suite area in the prison.
They are also themed to ensure that all aspects of the process of applying for and receiving accommodation, employment and other support issues are covered. These phone out days were advertised through electronic kiosks on the wing landings and by a flyer delivered to each cell.
Check Out Housing Matters is a more bespoke service. Individual invitations are given to up to 30 prisoners to have a 15-minute video link with their local housing team or probation housing support. They also have follow-on time to meet and discuss issues and concerns with their case manager. These are run twice a month to ensure that all those who are eligible for release in the coming month can get the support they need.
The value of these conversations is the way that they can help people manage their expectations, understand the steps that they will have to make to get what they need and set manageable and realistic goals. It also helps to make men feel a part of the process and that they have a voice. Feedback from the men is also positive. ‘Good news – there is loads of possible help’, ‘I feel this time I was listened to more about my health situation as it wasn’t put on record last time’ and ‘I can see a solution (if approved by probation)’.
With face-to-face Check Out events now able to be hosted again the most popular are Check Out Work Matters and Check Out Job Fair which offer support in finding employment and training and links with potential employers and agents. The feedback is positive with men lining up jobs, arranging follow-on calls, speaking to employment agencies and using an in-cell CV pack (developed by the Departure Lounge team) to tease out skills and experience that help with the application process.
When the day of release comes, the departing prisoners are invited into the Departure Lounge for on-the-day essentials, like phone charging, clothing and transport. The reality for people stepping outside the prison gates is that all they have with them are the prison clothes on their back and a carrier bag of possessions that were confiscated when they were arrested. That could have been months or years back, so items like mobile phones will have long since lost their charge. It could also be a cold winter’s day – no time to be venturing outside in a thin tracksuit. So the first thing that the Departure Lounge offers is highly practical, or additional items of clothing, water bottles and food for those taking long journeys. The team also look up train times and ensure that the men know where to go for pre-arranged appointments with substance misuse services and probation.
Departure day begins early for the Departure Lounge team. While prison leavers wait in reception to be discharged, staff continue to coordinate support, ensuring medications and prescriptions are in hand and talking to the men about getting home. Where possible Departure Lounge staff carry out an early morning check alongside the custody discharge co-ordinator nurse and reception staff to ensure continuity of care between substance misuse treatment in prison and in the community. This ensures that prisoners do not leave without having received their prescribed dose or onward prescription and a naloxone kit.
After stepping over the threshold, prison leavers are then invited to the visitors’ centre outside the prison gate. Over a cup of coffee Departure Lounge staff offer practical information and advice. Only around 22 per cent of people being discharged from prison who have come through the Departure Lounge have a phone in their possession, so part of the package of support involves donating some phones to those most in need. The final stage of support involves follow-up calls in the weeks after release. Staff invite feedback and offer brief interventions and encouragement.
Confidence, resilience and success
It’s clear that the Check Out and Departure Lounges are increasing people’s confidence, resilience and chances of success when they return to their communities. Addressing two of the most pressing concerns – housing and employment – is having a hugely positive impact in supporting people back into a more settled way of life. The current reducing reoffending champion sees the benefits of his work every day. ‘Through my job role, we have helped many prisoners get accommodation with the help of local councils, and through the hosted series of job fair events we connect prisoners with potential employment and services.’
Pete (not his real name) was a prolific reoffender. He first came into contact with the Departure Lounge when he was handed a flyer about one of its many services, Ask More Phone Out support. One of the numbers on the flyer was for Konnect Communities in Cornwall, an organisation that supports prison leavers back into local communities and into employment. Pete had a really positive conversation with the team at Konnect and it was felt that further contact would cement the next steps for Pete as he prepared to leave prison.
The next available support came via the video link facilities at the prison when Pete was able to benefit from a Check Out Housing Matters session. Following a very successful virtual conversation which further improved Pete’s rapport with Konnect and other services that could help him settle into his local community, Pete was feeling confident about his future opportunities for the first time in a long time.
He then came to the first two Check Out Lounge face-to-face events during October and November where he met properly with Konnect. On the day of his release, Pete visited the Departure Lounge and was met by his family. He was provided with a mobile phone so that he could stay in touch with Konnect and since then he has continued to engage positively with them and is transforming his life. He is supporting himself and others in his family which has meant that he has greatly reduced his risk of reoffending.
Pete is genuinely flourishing and the credit for this is largely down to a new sense of self belief and confidence as well as the contacts he made through the Departure Lounge services which helped him find the right connections back into his local community.
Kerrie Clifford is marketing and communications manager for EDP Drug and Alcohol Service (part of Humankind)
If you’d like more information about the Departure Lounge contact firstname.lastname@example.org