In this post, Stan Burridge, Director of Expert Focus (a user-led consultancy), reports on how COVID-19 is impacting on workers who support people leaving prison to find accommodation and resettle in the community. He speaks to two workers from the Cumbria Offender Service run by Humankind, a medium-sized voluntary sector organisation based in the north of England. (1,388 words)
Thinking about your job before the lockdown, what is your normal role like?
There are a number of different roles I play supporting offenders who have either been released after serving a prison sentence or as part of a community-based sentence involving probation. All of my work fits into the wider picture of helping them to find a stable platform (securing accommodation and claiming benefits is part of that process) so they can engage with other services as part of their sentencing commitments but also as a way of moving forward and hopefully away from committing crime.
What are the difficulties in finding accommodation for people leaving prison, especially as housing is at a premium?
There is a real difficulty in getting people housed and in an ideal world everyone who was released from prison would have somewhere to go, but that is not the case. Often when accommodation is found it is in areas where there is a lot of crime and drug use, so it seems as though we are often perpetuating people’s problems. Options to place people in less deprived areas are limited and the harsh reality is if I couldn’t get someone housed in those sorts of areas, I probably wouldn’t be able to get them housed anywhere, so they would be homeless.
We have heard that prisons are releasing some prisoners early to make the prisons more conducive to social distancing. How is this working?
It is not the case of just releasing people. It has to be risk managed. No one is released unless they have accommodation secured. It’s not a case of just releasing them as NFA (No Fixed Abode) and sending them to the council. There is a lot of planning going into who is going to be released how that is going to happen.
What have been the main differences in how you work with the clients now compared to before the lockdown?
I would normally have a case load of 18 people, but since the COVID-19 outbreak this has gone up slightly. Contact with clients has always been a mix of telephone calls, texts and face-to-face. The biggest change for the clients is there are no face-to-face meetings happening at the moment, everything is being done either on the telephone or online. There are a small number who are not coping with that process so keeping them engaged is a little more difficult, but in the main things are going well. For some of my more complex clients with memory problems, being able to conduct meetings on the telephone is very helpful. Before if the client failed to meet with me face to face this would be recorded negatively on their probation record. However, now so long as they pick up the phone which they often will, then that counts the same as a face to face contact.
We have also been allowed to start using WhatsApp and I have found that really helpful. I can have a really quick two way conversation on WhatsApp, they can send me a picture of what they need, I can send them a screen shot of what I need to send them, so that’s been a really good thing. Clients also seem to be much happier engaging through WhatsApp.
What about those offenders who are not allowed to have technology?
They are National Probation Service (NPS) high-risk clients, so with they will only have telephone contact. Some are only allowed to have a basic mobile or a landline, so they do not have internet access. This is the highest risk group and some will still have to go into the probation office to meet with their probation team face to face.
Have there been any significant changes with how you and your colleagues are working together?
I think everybody struggled when this all started as we were not used to working from home and trying to juggle work and home life. Things have now settled and I would say there has been lots of positives. Our team is meeting up more regularly than we did before the lockdown. Before this started we would meet once a month, (our service covers a wide geographical area, so we are spread out,) we would have other communication during that time, but would only meet as a team once a month. We are now meeting twice a week on Zoom so we all get together and chat which we would never have done before. It feels more like we are much closer as a team. It can sometimes be hard when you only meet once month and although we do work very well as a team and there is a huge amount of support for us, being able to have more meeting time together is far better. For example, I have a Zoom meeting planned with a colleague so instead of wasting an hour or more emailing each other and looking at something separately, we can do it together, it is far more productive, and we are talking in real time about the topic. It is something we could have been doing all along it just isn’t something we have thought about. It has brought out a more efficient way of working and it actually shows that a lot of the work we do, can be done remotely and that suits us because our service is spread over such a wide geographical area. We feel that we are running a more efficient service.
Have there been any benefits to how you work with other organisations?
At the moment local councils have been told they must provide temporary accommodation during the Coronavirus pandemic, and this is a good thing for the clients. Because they are in B&B, I am not worried about them being on the streets and I am not having to put them in the first place I can find. This is really important as there are a limited number of landlords doing viewings at the moment, so giving that little security blanket with the B&B is almost buying some time for the service user to feel that someone is actually doing something, and this is making them respond better and engage more.
Having this extra resource also seems to have improved our relationships with other agencies and professionals. Before the pandemic, there were sometime situations where messages were ignored or bureaucracy took over, but now we are all coming together and being really involved with each other so that’s a good thing.
I recently sent a message and I got a message back a short while later telling me they have already picked up the case and put that client in a B&B and suggesting the next moves we can take together for that client. This working together side of things feels like everyone is finally realising that it’s not us against each other, it’s all of us in it together; that part of it has been really great.
I also think that people are realising that multi-agency meetings don’t always have to be where everyone is sat in a room. Often if an organisation can’t attend they seem to drop out of the process with that client, this isn’t happening now as everyone can attend no matter where they are so it’s just becoming a lot more inclusive. There is also a lot more flexibility. It’s been really good. There are some massive positives that have happened.
In writing this blog, my brief was to look at the changes in working practices within this service during the COVID-19 lockdown. What comes to light is that instead of an already stretched system breaking under the strain of lockdown, new practices have emerged that are refreshing practices and leading to some positive innovation and change in working practices. Introducing the extra resource into the system so that people can have B&B, has improved inter-agency working across a system that is normally defensive. It is clear that the provision of short-term placements in B&B accommodation for homeless offenders (most of whom are not owed the full homeless duty by a Local Authority) is making a real difference to their longer term prospects. It is clear that there are some real positives for workforce development which must be retained as we begin to move forward.
Stan Burridge is Director of Expert Focus.