Beyond Youth Custody

From being inside to life on the outside

Beyond Youth Custody admin

Over two days in May a team of five researchers went to a women’s prison to interview staff and prisoners about resettlement for young women. The researchers work for the Beyond Youth Custody consortium which is funded through the Big Lottery’s Youth in Focus (YIF) programme.

The research team interviewed 12 staff and conducted four focus groups to get feedback from around 20 young women at the prison. The majority of young women that we spoke with were serving short sentences.

“I will get some education and then stay in work.
I’ll keep out of trouble.”

“I will have a different mentality when I’m released.”

“Things will be much better. I’m going to go
to college and [will] have a better future.”

The young women came across as confident, intelligent, and assertive, but over the next couple of days the research team discovered that the thought of life outside the prison walls was often a daunting prospect for them.

Finding a place to live is usually the biggest challenge. Accommodation support is currently ad hoc and piecemeal. The housing crisis which is occurring outside the prison gates has a corresponding impact on women who are soon to be released. Waiting lists for social housing at an all-time high (particularly in London) and the young women that we spoke with were not usually prioritised on those lists.

Many of the women were concerned about having little money and about how to gain employment and/or training. When asked about what needs were most important, they said that they would like support and help in finding a job. Work experience available whilst still inside prison is limited in its scope. The young women said that there should be a better range of work experience opportunities available and that they should be linked to a career on release.

“People on the outside will always judge you
if they know that you’ve been [inside].
It’s an embarrassment.”

“I’m not asking for anything
that’s not my right. I’m just asking
for what I need and my entitlements”.

“All it is, is getting a job.
We shouldn’t be labelled for life.”

Substance misuse and addictions provide many young women with another significant hurdle. Some projects that work inside the prison are seen as successful because of the assistance that they provide to the women prior to release. However, even carefully targeted assistance of this kind on the inside cannot stop drug dealers and other negative influences from affecting the young women as soon as they come out.

Family and personal relationships are usually more important for women who are in prison than for men. Women are more likely to be primary carers of children and/or family members. The disruption to family life can have a significant effect on the well-being of many people on the outside. Family relationships that are already under strain can be pushed to breaking point under the circumstances so a greater focus on family liaison work prior to release would be welcomed.

Getting help with mental health problems can be a problem for young women. Although the secure estate employs a large amount of psychology professionals, there appears to be significant unmet need, perhaps especially in relation to emotional or psychological issues that do not involve a specific “diagnosis”. Also, once the young woman has been released, she has to rely on community mental health services which have suffered to some extent as a result of austerity measures.

The use of Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) is often promoted as a resettlement tool for young women but ROTL faces increasing restrictions upon its use following some recently publicised escapes of male prisoners. Because there are fewer women’s prisons, some women are kept a long way from their home. If the ROTL has a time restriction on it, the time spent travelling can often account for the majority of the time on ROTL.

The young women said that resettlement advice and help was often not offered until three or four weeks before release. This was criticised as being too short a timeframe to plan for life outside. Other research suggests that continuity of support works best – a ‘through the gate’ approach.

In May 2014, the prison opened a hub. This is an area outside the prison (yet within the gate) which acts as a place where women can gather their thoughts; organise life’s practicalities; charge their phones; and have access to support workers who are based there. Women cannot access the hub if they have already left the prison gates – It is a sort of a “half-way house” which can be accessed on the way to the outside. Some of the women see the place as tokenistic due to it being ‘too little too late’.

The young women said that they would like to be able to have more mentoring and general support before release. Mentoring support is particularly helpful in terms of employability and job search plans. Making a fresh start and putting the past behind them is what comes out on top for most of these prisoners.

“When I’m released, I will have
a different mentality and a better future.”

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Resettlement of young offenders: informing practice, improving outcomes