Evidence from Ireland and throughout the world shows that people who have lived, for any reason, in the care of the State, such as prisons, experience a substantial risk of becoming homelessness after discharge or release. Appropriate and accessible accommodation is a vital factor in successful rehabilitation. It is crucial to sustaining employment, treatment, family support and finances. The Irish Prison System acknowledges that “the issue of homelessness among ex-prisoners is an ongoing problem.” Despite their knowledge of the problem, the IPS have continually been lacking in the aid they provide to prisoners as part of their rehabilitation back into society.
Louise McCann was a member of the Council for Research and Development for the Irish Bishops’ Conference and conducted extensive research on the link between homelessness and the release of prisoners. She explained the difficult trap prisoners are susceptible to. “Increasing evidence has demonstrated the link between prison and homelessness. The reality of being locked up can make it impossible to keep up with rent and mortgage repayments, resulting in the loss of their home.” For many, time in prison means that acquiring accommodation can become extremely difficult. “A prison sentence can lead to a prisoner being removed from the local authority housing list, or the repossession of their local authority home. Because to length of the waiting list and the fact that the majority of ex-offenders are single males, it could take over two years before the ex-offender is offered Local Authority accommodation.”
Councils often pose a barrier to prisoner resettlement, despite the intention of local homelessness strategies. Local councils can judge ex-offenders ineligible for housing if they are categorised as intentionally homeless for failing to inform their landlord of a sentence or for committing an offence. They can be treated as ineligible due to unacceptable behaviour, or may simply not be judged as priority need. Housing services in prisons often lack connections with other local authorities and housing providers. While offenders can be moved to prison anywhere in the country, they are only eligible for housing in their home area. This leads to a high number of prisoners with no home to go to or any chance of gaining accommodation.
Studies into prisoner’s re-entry into society consistently show that homelessness and the provision of suitable accommodation was by far the most frequently mentioned difficulty facing prisoners and the service providers supporting them on release. In 2010, a report from the Irish Penal Reform Trust found that prisoners are often left to their own devices in relation to finding out what services are available during the sentence and how to access them. Often such information is gained only through their contacts with other prisoners and not from those charged with providing custody. Official statistics generally under-represent the number of homeless individuals in the criminal justice system, due to the adverse implications for offenders (e.g. an increased likelihood of being remanded in custody, reduced likelihood of receiving temporary release etc.) if they state their homeless status.”
Many of the incidents of post-release homelessness are related to temporary or early release, particularly where this has been unplanned. The procedures associated with these releases can mean that, even in the cases where the prisoner has been identified as at risk of homelessness and engaged with Case Management services, the case manager may not always be made aware that the person will be imminently released. Short notice combined with Friday evening releases means prisoners have difficulty contacting necessary services on release, including homelessness support. In the past, the negligence the IPS shown to prisoners under their care has led to the deaths of a number of prisoners soon after release.
On the 23rd of May 2011, Dermot Rooney was granted temporary release from Wheatfield Prison to an address that was no longer available to him. After spending a few days living on the street, Dermot took his own life. Focus Ireland, a nonprofit organization that provides services for homeless people, had visited him three times in prison to prepare accommodation for him upon his release, but a day before a fourth meeting the charity was informed Dermot was no longer in their custody. The IPS acknowledged at the inquest into Dermot’s death “that it was a failure on our part not to have consulted with Focus Ireland who had been engaging with Mr Rooney”. It also admitted no formal case review was conducted before his was granted release, and no efforts were made to ensure he had someone to meet him upon his departure from the prison. This was not the first time the IPS had failed in their duty to those in their care through miscommunication and oversight.
Earlier that year, on March 9, Alan Hempenstall had been granted full temporary release from Wheatfield Prison as a result of prison overcrowding. The address on his admissions sheet and to which he was released was not verified by the IPS – and had it been the IPS would have known that he was homeless. As it was, he was released with nowhere to go. A few weeks later his body was discovered in an alleyway in the city centre following a methadone overdose. At his inquest the IPS said it had acted “within the law” but “we realise what happened here was not good enough”.
His sister, Donna O’Connor, said she was waiting for Alan to be released in April, in accordance with his sentence, when she learnt of his death. No one from Whitfield Prison had informed Donna of Alan’s release or that he was longer being held at the facility. The case came a month after Marcus Briggs was found dead at Cook Street, Dublin, just two days after being released from Mountjoy. He was homeless at the time of his death. As with the two previous cases, he had been detained on minor offences.
At the inquest into Mr Hempenstall’s death an IPS official admitted that the release had not met “best practice standards”. The jury at the inquest returned a verdict of death by misadventure. They recommended that the IPS establish a way to recognize “vulnerable” prisoners and put a structured release programme in place prior to discharge. As of 2015, no dedicated policy has been brought forward to deal with issue of homelessness amongst prisoners upon release.
The stigma of having been in prison, furthered by the lack of long-term and co-ordinated support and care, mean that many of those newly released return to their lives on the margins of society, and they may succumb to alcohol and/or drug abuse. This, in turn, has a negative impact on society in terms of crime and anti-social behaviour, and gives rise to significant financial costs to the State. In Ireland, the incidence of these problems is worsened by the large number of people sentenced to short prison terms for relatively minor offences and the practice of early, ‘unplanned’, release which does not allow people to prepare for life beyond the prison doors. Those who are granted early release are often serving short sentences but these contribute significantly to homelessness by disrupting the prisoners existing accommodation and employment, but the IPS have not put in place adequate reintegrative policies for those who are held on short term sentences, with those only those serving longer sentences granted access to in-reach programmes.
The IPS appears to be beginning to tackle the issue of homelessness amongst ex-prisoners. Paddy Richardson, Chief Executive of the Irish Association for the Social Integration of Offenders (IASIO), works closely with the IPS and believes that change will be seen in the future. “Generally our experience is becoming more positive. In early April a number of the IASIO staff who are working with prisoners who will be homeless on release met with the IPS to discuss new developments. We are hoping that we can continue to work together to tackle this issue.”
Although there may be growing optimism amongst those who work with in-reach programmes that help find accommodation for prisoners upon release, based on previous promises made by the IPS and with the increasing financial cuts being made to the service, it is difficult to be confident that a significant change to the system will be made in the near future.