Last week I attended a roundtable event at which lots of policy and practice people (and a couple of academics, but no ex-prisoners) were trying to grapple with some of the challenges of resettlement and reintegration — and what would need to change in terms of structures and practices to better support ex-prisoners in their efforts to desist from crime.
It was an interesting conversation — lots of pioneering projects were represented, and lots of practical problems were identified. We all recognised some pretty obvious ways in which we set up people to fail — like short term prisoners who often lose their tenancies whilst in custody (and sometimes lose furniture and belongings), leave prison with a tiny discharge grant and then wait weeks for benefits and months for suitable accommodation, while struggling to access health services perhaps having been de-registered by their GPs when inside, and who are unable to secure work because of their criminal records. Even where we do provide services to them, we tend to expect them, just having navigated the disruption of incarceration, to then steer their way through a maze of different services, usually offered 9-5, Monday to Friday, usually expecting to offer an office-based service, usually expecting the ‘client’ to make all the running.
Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but one person at the meeting tellingly lamented the fact that ex-prisoners’ needs are so ‘complex’ (referring particularly to women). Well, yes and no, I think. Yes, prisoners may have plenty of human needs, and those may have been unmet for a very long time, leading to all sorts of related problems and difficulties. But ‘no’ in the sense that they are the same human needs that pre-occupy everyone else.
It’s certainly complicated to try to meet ex-prisoners’ needs adequately so as to support their (re)integration into society, but maybe the problem is not that the needs are too complex but that the services are too simple. In a quite different meeting today, I had the chance to listen to a former senior civil servant who lamented and tried to tackle the way that government departments tend to develop silo mentalities. A bit like professions, or like academic disciplines, they naturally develop expertise in and become pre-occupied with their part of the business of government (or public service, or social science). The consequence is the all-too-familiar failure to deliver joined up government, or multi-disciplinary working, or interdisciplinary research. In resettlement practice that becomes the failure to meet people’s needs as they find them, to tackle their problems with them, as and when and how they experience them, to support them to find their own ways to flourish not just in terms of health, or wellbeing, or recovery, or desistance, or human development, or in family life, or as citizens, or as political actors, but in all of these senses simultaneously.
Most of us don’t live tidy lives, neatly packaged into discrete components that individual service providers can, well, service. We are a bit more complex than that… and we need access to and support from services than can meet us as and where we are, and as and when we need them. But have we the wit, the will and pockets deep enough to develop resettlement services that can function in that way? Imagine a 24-7-365, one-stop shop providing a multi-professional ‘transitions’ service for ex-prisoners. Imagine that ex-prisoners helped to design, deliver and evaluate its services. Imagine that they were both service providers and service users. Sounds risky? Sounds expensive? Perhaps… but maybe less risky and less expensive than the alternatives.