Foston Hall HMP Project
HMP Foston Hall is a women's prison housing up to a maximum of 310 prisoners at any one time. It is a remand prison and therefore many women are in and out on a regular basis, often for short periods of time. In addition to remand prisoners, Foston Hall houses prisoners serving the longest period of their sentence prior to transfer to other prisons or release.
The women have restricted access to phones, having to identify their preferred numbers and obtain consent for them to be added to their phone cards. They are not allowed access to any other phones unless a staff member is present and permission given to make phone calls. No access is allowed to the internet and only 2 letters per week are permitted.
Women have access to Job Centre Plus, Women in Prison, Education, Careers, Training and Offender Management Unit. The CAB have been present in the prison since April 2012.
Key Issues Identified
- Women serving less than a one year sentence have no support from the Offender Management Unit and are left to find their own housing and deal with any issues they may have.
- Many women are concerned that upon release they will have to go back to areas or specific housing where they are susceptible to falling back into substance abuse, prostitution or domestic abuse.
- Many prisoners have mental health/self harming/substance abuse issues which they try to address whilst in prison but which are often not taken into account when housing decisions are made by housing providers upon their release.
- Prisoners often have their children taken into care upon their imprisonment and cannot secure housing upon their release to have their children with them. They cannot get their children as they cannot get a house and they cannot get a house because they do not have their children.
- There is no process in place to ensure that women are aware of their obligation to inform the local housing authority of their change of circumstances.
- There is no housing information in a central location that women can access to sort out their housing ready for release. Offender Management Unit may have their own files for prisoners serving more than one year but these are not available in the IAG centre.
- No assistance for anything other than basic benefit issues. Job Centre Plus is in the prison 4 days per week but primarily deals with ensuring that benefit is stopped upon committal to prison [although this should now be done automatically by the court] and booking appointments at a prisoner's local JC+ upon release. No follow-up is made to check the client attends once released. JC+ also runs a Job Club which assists with clients looking for jobs in preparation for their release.
- Job Centre Plus do not have access to prisoners' benefits records and cannot sort out any benefit queries other than confirming if benefit was in place. No direct access to the relevant benefit contact centres and having to contact the public helpline so no ‘fast track' system in place to deal with prisoners' issues.
- Job Centre Plus do give out community care grant forms but do not assist in the completion of these as they feel it would compromise them as JC+ decides on whether or not the CCG's are approved. Prisoners not given any advice on how best to fill in the forms.
- No specialist advice on debts.
- No specialist advice relating to housing issues generally – to include rent arrears. Many women have rent arrears dating back many years. Local housing authorities are wrongly still pursing many women for debts that are out of time for collection. Women in Prison assist with housing issues but no clear responsibility of any one partner within Foston.
- Local authorities are denying tenancies due to rent arrears without taking into account other key factors such as substance abuse, domestic violence etc..and also the age of the debt [often many years old].
- Many local authority benefit advisers are not aware of the rules relating to housing benefit and council tax benefit for prisoners and are incorrectly stopping benefit or giving out incorrect advice. This can lead to women being further in debt or at risk of homelessness due to housing benefit not being properly applied and rent arrears accruing.
- Local authorities are being notified of stoppage of benefit from Job Centre Plus but take little, if any, action to contact prisoners to inform them of the consequences of this. Rent arrears build up quickly without prisoners being aware that housing benefit has stopped.
- Landlords are using Google to find out what offences tenants have been convicted of and issuing Section 21 notices [ending tenancy without any particular reason once the initial term of the tenancy has elapsed] resulting in prisoners becoming homeless whilst in prison.
- Many Local Authority benefit departments have no system in place to deal specifically with prisoners who have severe restrictions on telephone use and no access to internet. Prisoners become frustrated at not being able to contact them and as a result often give up trying which can again lead to incorrect benefit being applied or stopped and tenancies being put at risk.
- Time limits for return of information to local authorities and other agencies are not expanded to take into account the restrictions on prisoners and the difficulties they face in obtaining information from outside the prison.
- A general lack of information and communication to prisoners on their options particularly in relation to housing, benefits and debts.
Solutions Implemented by the CAB
- The production of housing folders which contain information relating to housing providers within a 50 miles radius of the prison. These include contact details and housing criteria for hostels, housing associations, private charity providers, local authority housing etc.. available for use by any prisoner in the IAG building.
- The production of local authorities' information sheets which include telephone numbers for all local authorities within a 50 miles distance of Foston Hall to include the main phone number, housing & homelessness section [including rent arrears] and benefits section. Again available to all in the IAG building.
- Information sheets provided giving specific information on when housing benefit and council tax benefit is applicable and what steps prisoners need to take.
- Mentor or caseworker at each weekly induction meeting for new prisoners informing them of the role of the bureau and giving them access to benefit notification forms.
- Notification of remand form available for prisoners to complete at induction [or later if preferred] and send onto their local authority – sent on by CAB
- Follow up notices for prisoners to remind them that when they are sentenced further notification to local authority is required.
- Notification of sentence form available for completion by prisoners when sentenced to be sent to local authority– sent on by CAB
- Information sheets provided giving specific information on when housing and homelessness applications can be made and what steps can be taken by prisoners whilst still in prison.
- Information sheets on debts [bankruptcy and Debt Relief orders] for prisoners to take away.
- Posters displayed throughout the prison giving details of the service provided by the CAB.
- Set up and on-going processes for mentors to follow to give basic information to prisoners and if necessary book appointments with caseworker.
- Daily face-to-face appointments [apart from weekends] with mentors to identify issues of prisoners.
- Weekly face-to-face appointments with CAB caseworker covering debts, benefits, tax credits, rent arrears etc.. giving clients access to the housing files and also enabling prisoners to contact housing providers and other organisations and agencies as it deemed appropriate by caseworker [in line with prison policy and guidelines].
- Production of self help letters for use at virtual campus which is accessible by mentors and prisoners. [These are in the process of being updated but it takes approximately 3 months to pass security and up-loaded onto the virtual campus site].
- Referral sheets given to other agencies working in the prison so that they can obtain access to our service for prisoners having probation officers.
In conjunction with Foston Hall, mentors have been appointed from the prison population and trained to work with the CAB caseworker to provide a service to the women. The project started with 5 mentors and currently has 2 working [due to the other 3 being transferred out of the prison]. New mentors are in the process of being recruited.
The bureau designed and produced numerous forms to enable the mentors to have initial meetings with prisoners on the wings during the week. These forms including statistics recording, overall personal information, specific debt information forms, housing information sheets and contact details for appointments and reminders.
The mentors meet with the CAB caseworker every Wednesday morning when issues and solutions are discussed. Cases are also discussed and appointments made with the CAB worker if required. The mentors record in a diary all prisoners seen that week and make appointments for the caseworker in a separate diary.
During the last 6 months, the CAB have produced information sheets on subjects such as housing [to include what benefits are applicable] and debt for use by the mentors so that prisoners are fully aware of what they are able access and how.
The mentors have been a valuable asset to the service provided on 2 levels:
- Prisoners can identify with them as they are prisoners themselves and can therefore understand the restrictions placed on the women and the frustrations felt by them;
- The mentors are building up their own self confidence and learning new skills which they will be able to use when they are released.
Impact of Presence of Bureau:
- Mentors have seen 166 prisoners since beginning in May 2012, with 75 debt issues, 67 housing issues, 16 benefit issues and 21 other queries.
- Caseworker has seen 80 clients for additional advice since May 2012 dealing mainly with debt, housing and benefit issues.
- Prisoners have weekly access to mentors and caseworker and can obtain accurate and up-to-date information on their particular issues.
- Prisoners have access to much more information relating to housing, debts and benefits.
- Prisoners have access to virtual campus with self help letters.
- Bureau has contacted numerous local authorities on behalf of clients and requested recalculations of housing benefit and council tax benefit based on clients' actual circumstances.
- Successful challenges of outstanding debts to include child tax credits, rent arrears and council tax arrears.
- Challenging poor and incorrect advice given by local authorities to prisoners resulting in possible loss of homes
- Social policy issues identified and reported to central CAB.
From the beginning of the project it was apparent that the one day per week the CAB spends in the prison is insufficient due to the demand for the service. There is still much to do in the prison to ensure that the project continues to support the women and to address their issues to include:
- Additional resources are desperately needed in order for the project to be fully accessible to everyone within the prison. (project only providing advice to approximately one third of the woman in prison)
- Continue developing and expanding the self help letters accessible on the virtual campus.
- Continue to expand the housing information available to prisoners.
- Continue to highlight social policy issues.
- Continue to support mentors and provide training to expand their knowledge of basic issues relating to housing, benefits and debts.
- Production of information booklets to include general information on housing, benefits and debts to be available on all wings and in the information centre where the CAB is based.
- Work with the prison staff and agencies to identify additional areas of need and look for solutions.
- Open question and answer sessions on prison wings during the evening to enable more prisoners to access the service and to gain general information in a non-threatening environment.
Prison Outreach Caseworker