As the coordinator of Lancashire Women’s Enhanced Through The Gate (ETTG) services for women within HMP/YOI Styal, Therese Sanders knows that release from prison can be a very stressful time, both for those being released and their families. In normal times, Therese and her probation colleagues, who are all based within the prison, meet with women 12 weeks prior to their release to prepare them for settling back into the community and to address any specific needs they may have, including mental health and wellbeing; accommodation; managing money, benefits, and debt; working on employment skills; and relationships and friendships. Following release, the ETTG relationship continues, providing a whole systems approach that supports women within their community, including access to Lancashire Women’s five Women’s Centres.

But these are not normal times. On 31 March this year, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government announced that all pregnant women in custody who do not pose a high risk of harm to the public will be temporarily released from prison. This was followed by an announcement on 4 April that all risk-assessed prisoners who are within two months of their release date will be temporarily released, as part of the Early Conditional Temporary Release (ECTR) scheme. These measures are to be welcomed, but they also raise questions: What is being done to ensure that prisoners and those supporting them understand the ECTR scheme and the conditions attached? How many prisoners may be released under the scheme? How will people be supported on release in terms of mental health, finances, housing, domestic abuse, and electronic monitoring?

“There’s a lot of confusion, especially among prisoners, about who is eligible for early release”, Therese says, “Lots think they’re going to be released when in actual fact, they won’t be.” When asked what would help, Therese’s reply is unequivocal: “Communication and planning. If we had a list of eligible women and time to reflect and consider their situations, it would really help to make sure we get the right support in place for release. Planning needs to be airtight when you’re supporting vulnerable people.”

Instead, Therese and her colleagues are firefighting in an ever-changing climate. “Early release has a huge impact on families too, many of whom are not prepared for their loved-one coming home.” Therese reports. “As well as not having time to get to know a women’s circumstances like we would normally do, we don’t know if someone in the family to whom they’re returning is self-isolating. We might actually be putting women and their families at risk without knowing it.” Testing for people on release from prison, and their families, is key to reducing risk of infection, especially if there are vulnerable people in the household.

For the many people who have no accommodation to go to on release, the challenges are even greater. Housing providers are no longer letting properties, and Approved Premises have restricted places to allow for social isolation. Housing for women on release from prison was an issue long before the pandemic, as highlighted in the Independent Monitoring Board’s report on HMP/YOI Foston Hall, published in March this year, and PRT’s  Home Truths briefing. Rosie Goodwin, Community Director for Merseyside Community Rehabilitation Company with responsibility for women, agrees: “The risk of women being released into unsafe accommodation where she may migrate to living with a previously abusive partner is higher now simply because her choices have become very limited in the community, especially if the accommodation plan on release breaks down.”

Whilst accommodation remains a significant concern, there are also practical barriers exacerbated by the pandemic, as Therese Sanders highlights: “Over the phone support is just not the same as face-to-face. We normally take women to where they need to go, for example probation meetings, drug and alcohol services, GPs … we can’t do that now. A woman last week had to take three trains and a tram just to get to an appointment. That’s a massive Covid risk. And you can’t get into a bank now to open an account.”

Accessing benefits is also much harder. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) normally has representatives within prisons to help with claims for Universal Credit and other benefits, but now there is only the Helpline, and as Therese says, “You just can’t get through, though DWP staff are working really hard to make their services inclusive for all and are working with us to overcome these barriers.” Registering with a GP is almost impossible with the current restrictions, leaving many prison leavers unable to access essential medication. Obtaining food vouchers from the Job Centre has become a feat of creativity: “We managed to arrange for vouchers to be passed through the window of the Job Centre”, reports Therese.

There is no doubt that this is a challenging time for everyone, but it is particularly so for people in the criminal justice system and their families. In response to issues raised by the Covid-19 pandemic, Clinks’ Reducing Reoffending Third Sector Advisory Group has set up a Special Interest Group which has made a number of recommendations to officials; these will go a long way to enabling agencies to work together to ensure that those leaving prison get the support they need. In addition, Rosie Goodwin would like to see a policy-change whereby recall for those who are at low-risk of harm and low-risk of reoffending is suspended: “The right support on release is crucial in successful resettlement. Rates of recall, especially among women, are far too high, and this is an ideal opportunity to take a fresh look at the whole process.” The case for review is well made in the Prison Reform Trust’s Broken Trust report.

For Therese, practical changes are also helpful: “Instead of general Helpline numbers, Lancashire Women is providing personalised information packs so that people being released from prison have a person to call, not an anonymous call centre.” She would like to see appropriate technology used in prisons to support people in the run-up to release (“We’re all connecting remotely now, but the prison population can’t do that”) and better online and telephone provision for opening bank accounts, registering with a GP, and accessing benefits: “If there was a dedicated DWP Helpline for people leaving prison, that would really help.”

Despite the challenges, both Rosie and Therese are full of praise for the prison, probation, and voluntary sector staff who are working incredibly hard to support those leaving prison as best they can. A multi-agency, whole systems approach, now more than ever, is  key, especially for pregnant women. Ultimately, the question we should be asking is why there are so many people in our prisons in the first place. If Covid-19 is offering any opportunities to reimagine the world in which we live, then ensuring that robust community alternatives are available in place of short-term prison sentences seems a good place to start.

Sarah Beresford