Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

A Home for Christmas: Leaving Prison amidst a National Housing Crisis

Helen Kosc  is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Oxford, Department of Sociology. For the last 18 months, Helen has conducted a long-term and large-scale ethnographic study of prison resettlement. She has shadowed the resettlement journeys of 150 men released from one, local category B prison over the course of 1.5 years. In both her participant observation and her qualitative, sequential interviews with the men, she hears men saying time and time again:

In here, at least I’m a number. Out there I am no one.

There is nothing for me to look forward to out there. I’d rather be in here.

I’ll do anything, anything to get me back inside the warm for a few nights.

She writes this piece, not as a work of fiction, but as a true story. Rather, as a culmination of 150 true stories. Heartbreaking, almost unbelievable, but all true. Behind her text and her summary are the men’s voices, thoughts, sentiments.

Inspired by her most recent conversation with a prison leaver who told her “I would rather be here for Christmas”, Helen hopes that through this short, thought-provoking piece, you reflect on the men and women released homeless from prison, wishing for a home for Christmas.

Author(s)

Helen Kosc
Helen Kosc is a Doctoral Student at the Sociology Department. She joined upon completing her MSc at Oxford in the 2020-2021 academic year.

Posted

Time to read

5 Minutes

You are a prison leaver released to Southeast England in December 2023 without a place to stay.

You are released amidst a national housing and cost of living crisis in this country. On any given night in England this year, there are an estimated 309,550 people and 72,320 households experiencing homelessness (Shelter, 2023). This number, including 123,000 children, is a 14% jump from last year alone (Ibid)

4 in 10 adults in Great Britain are reporting a difficulty affording their rent and mortgage payments (ONS, 2023) , average house prices in cities like Oxford are a soaring 18 times the UK average yearly household income (Homelessness Oxfordshire, 2023), and the number of available social housing units is at a remarkable low – the lowest rate in decades (Shelter, 2023).

You are released during a time where divestment in social homes and care for the vulnerable in this country is at an all-time low. With food prices become unaffordable, the hope of a roof over your head unimaginable, and the chances of getting a job in this economy with a criminal record near-impossible, poor timing, you think to yourself as your release date approaches.

Research shows financial crises and periods of austerity ‘disproportionately affect the marginalized and the vulnerable’ (Stubbs et al., 2022; Armando, 2021; Hastings et al., 2017), you’re not one for academic studies, but this one seems pretty true to you.

You are a prison leaver released to Southeast England in December 2023 without a place to stay.

You are not alone, in a country that incarcerates more individuals than any other country in Western Europe (Prison Reform Trust, 2019), you are part of an ever-growing prison population. The prison population in England and Wales has risen by 80% in the last 30 years (Prison Reform Trust, 2023), and you’re currently part of an 80,659 individuals, expected to rise by another 7,400 by early 2024 (Ibid).

With 61% of you committing a non-violent offence and 2 in 5 serving six months or less (Ibid), you are not the only prison leaver coming out homeless this cold and chilling December.

You are a prison leaver released to Southeast England in December 2023 without a place to stay.

Historically studies have consistently shown that housing upon release can significantly reduce reoffending by at least 20% (Social Exclusion Unit, 2002), with those having accommodation arranged being four times more likely to gain meaningful employment, education and training (Niven & Stewart, 2005). The research is not in your favor. More than three-quarters (79%) of prison leavers in your position – homeless upon release – are reconvicted within the first year of release (Ministry of Justice, 2012). This is compared to the 48% of general prison leavers who return in one year, and one-third who return in one month (Ministry of Justice, 2012). The statistics are not in your favor.

You are a prison leaver released to Southeast England in December 2023 without a place to stay.

So what are your options?

Council housing? There is a current wait list of 2780 people on your council’s housing registrar and a wait time of 10-20 years (Oxford City Council Housing Registrar Website, 2023).

Rough sleeping? Where you’re at elevated risk of developing respiratory disease, dental problems, skin diseases, asthma, bronchitis, epilepsy, and have a higher likelihood of experiencing heart problems, stroke, diabetes, anxiety, severe depression, suicidal tendencies, self-harming behavior and violent and/or sexual assault (Crisis, 2012; Theodorou & Johnsen, 2017; Homeless Link, 2014; Keogh et al., 2015; Brett et al., 2014; Bines, 1994; Beijer et al., 2016; Lewer at el., 2019).

Sofa surfing? Categorized as a ‘hidden homelessness’ (Minich et al., 2011; Peters, 2012; Crawley et al., 2013; Findlay et al., 2013; Mayock and Corr, 2013; Elwell-Sutton et al., 2017; Mayock and Parker, 2019) that actually effects 8 times as many people as rough sleeping (Fitzpatrick et al., 2021; Barton & Wilson, 2021). A state of ‘permanent impermanence’ where you lack privacy and personal space, and are often forced to rely on the very same contacts you hope to – and the ones desistence textbooks urge you to – avoid.

So whether you hope you are deemed ‘priority’ need and offered a spot in temporary council accommodation, have a means of securing a floor or sofa to sleep on with an old acquaintance you hope you can trust, or are going to try to find somewhere quiet (and hopefully safe) to sleep on the streets, you are going to be homeless (Reeve & Batty, 2011). Each ‘choice’ is temporary and not ideal, each requires taking on its own unique set of risks. Not much of a choice really. Is prison still an option?

You are a prison leaver released to Southeast England in December 2023 without a place to stay

Where am I going to sleep tonight? Who do I still know in the area? Who owes me a favor? What can I eat for less than £1.50 these days? How cold is it going to be? Do I need a blanket? Will I be safe? When I run out of money, how will I eat? What supermarket will be easiest to steal from?

Of all the questions going through your mind as you walk through the prison gates, the question of whether or not to desist from crime is likely not of much importance. But, in subtle and nuanced ways, it lingers behind every question above.

To desist or not desist? Or better yet, to desist but for how long? Until night 5 on the street? Until you’re starving and out of money? Until you get a bottle smashed over your head while sleeping on the streets? Until you get assaulted by your neighbor in council housing? Until your only option left is to stay at an abusive ex partner’s? Until you are thrown out of the hospital bed for ‘abusing’ the services?

Desisting from crime, like any other behavioral change, is active and effortful – not just a passive event that takes place overnight. It is a negotiation that takes place every single day – not to pick up that drink, not to ingest that substance, not to call up an old friend, not to visit that ex-partner, not to resort to theft when your stomach is rumbling, not to breakdown when you’re sleeping on the streets. It is an active decision made every day to take one more step away from the ‘old version’ of yourself until he or she is eventually abandoned altogether.

However, when no new friends exist, when alcohol is the only way to make your concrete bed comfortable, when your prescription runs out and drugs are the only escape from your inner demons, when you’ve been rejected from council housing and received yet another ‘no’ from a job application, the negotiation becomes more challenging.

You are a prison leaver released to Southeast England in December 2023 without a place to stay.

And while some prison leavers will manage to stick it out, at the cost of their mental, physical, or social wellbeing, many will not. Many will return to prison. And those that return to prison will have to face the same choices again the next time they are released; and the next time; and the next time…until we dramatically change the housing landscape and resettlement policy in this country.

So at some point, starving, freezing and abandoned, you decide you cannot survive another night in the cold. You know of men who have self-harmed to ‘buy’ a night or two in a hospital bed, but one or two nights doesn’t feel like enough for you. You dawn your balaclava and enter your exclusion zone, waiting, hoping, to get caught. I’ll be home for Christmas, you think, as you’re handcuffed and walked over to the police car. I’ll have a home for Christmas, you repeat to yourself as you are driven to the prison gates. And surely enough, the next day as you awake in a warm bed, with a roof over your head, a cellmate, and three meals a day, you knew your Christmas wish had come true.

 

Visit Helen's profile page in the Department of Sociology.

 

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

H. Kosc. (2023) A Home for Christmas: Leaving Prison amidst a National Housing Crisis. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/centre-criminology-blog/blog-post/2023/12/home-christmas-leaving-prison-amidst-national-housing. Accessed on: 01/03/2024

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