By Graham Durcan and Alethea Cope

Leaving prison is a challenging but crucial time for any person. The support someone gets, from that point of release through to the days and weeks of stabilising themselves in the community, can be the critical difference between remaking a life, or getting stuck in the ‘revolving door’ of the criminal justice system.

72,000 people left prison last year, most of them with at least one mental health difficulty. High rates of reoffending have been a policy concern for years, and yet support at the critical time before and after release is often minimal. A report last year found that 10% of people were homeless on the day of release from prison, and that just 6% had been supported into employment by prison or probation services.  And few get access to ongoing mental health support when they are released.

The support someone gets can be the critical difference between remaking a life, or getting stuck in the ‘revolving door’ of the criminal justice system

Improving the support offered to people leaving prison could truly change lives, families and generations; it could reduce the number of people experiencing mental distress and contribute to a more productive and happier country. Supporting someone into employment, for example, provides stability and a sense of worth and promotes financial independence. And providing mental health support for people leaving prison alongside practical help with housing, finances and other basic needs can be essential elements of effective rehabilitation.

In terms of helping people with mental health difficulties into work, what works is – at last – being rolled out across the country. The Individual Placement and Support (IPS) model finds people work quickly when they want it, then offers time-unlimited support to help them retain the role alongside advice on benefits and health support. Until recently, we did not yet know whether this approach could be adapted to support people leaving prison into employment. Liaising with eight English prisons and with funding from the Henry Smith Charity, JP Getty Charitable Trust and the Garfield Weston Foundation, we set out to see whether IPS could produce similar success for this group.

23 of the 61 people who engaged both during and after their time in prison found work. For many, this was in the face of some major challenges

As a result of the project, 23 of the 61 people who engaged both during and after their time in prison found work. For many, this was in the face of some major challenges. The project coincidentally started at the same time as the biggest upheaval in probation services for many decades, Transforming Rehabilitation, took place. This made communication and liaison with probation services (a critical partner) extremely difficult. Often probation services seemed quite distant and remote, with sometimes little or no contact being made with the person being released. A key concern was the lack of mental health support for people being released from prison: whilst we received 63 referrals from prison mental health services, only nine people were accepted onto community mental health team caseloads. This was a group with complex needs, but the vast majority of them received no mental health support on leaving prison.

Whilst we received 63 referrals from prison mental health services, only nine people were accepted onto community mental health team caseloads

Release from prison presents a critical opportunity for health, employment and criminal justice services to help people reimagine their lives after prison and find stability, fulfillment, and better wellbeing. As the changes in probation begin to settle, there is now an opportunity to provide vital support to break the vicious cycle of reoffending. And our work demonstrates that there is hope of a life after prison and positive contribution to society – with the right support. Now it remains to the decision makers to choose to look past the labels people are given and do what works to change lives.


Learn more about the project here