Sam Boyd, Switchback’s Head of Policy, Impact and Communications, sets out case for making sure ‘TR 2.0’ is not just more of the same with a new name.
Transforming Rehabilitation, or not
At a recent meeting of Switchback’s Experts by Experience board of former Trainees, the group was discussing whether they’d ever had someone in prison – an officer or probation staff – to help them plan for release. There was silence and then Murad (not his real name) said: “yeah I had one, but I never saw one”. This seemed to sum up most members’ feelings: it was almost a given that while help might be promised, you probably won’t get any.
The upshot, as Switchback told the justice select committee’s inquiry into Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) last year, is a deep mistrust in the system and people often leaving prison without so much as a conversation about their future. As a result, we increasingly meet people nearing release with nowhere to live, undiagnosed health issues, drug addiction, debt, no ID, benefits or bank account – and usually a combination of these things.
As concluded by the justice committee’s inquiry (and by the public accounts committee, probation inspectorate, National Audit Office, Clinks and many others), the core promise of TR – consistent through-the-gate support – was never realised. Voluntary sector involvement was minimal, recalls soared, costs spiralled and the reoffending rate barely changed. While we stayed out of TR contracts, Switchback and our Trainees have felt the impact acutely as support fragmented and basic needs went unmet.
Five years and £2.3bn later, the government’s cancellation of contracts and renationalisation of the probation service at least recognises the need for change. But there is a danger that if the right lessons are not learned we will be back here again in five years’ time.
How can we avoid ‘TR 2.0’ being more of the same with a new name? Part of the challenge is to reverse an underlying policy direction that combines top-down, centralised commissioning of services alongside massive annual budget cuts (MoJ has had the largest of any department). The type of support that prison-leavers need in order to flourish will remain elusive if this basic philosophy remains in place.
That’s because making a lasting change in your life requires, above all, meaningful human relationships. This is something we have argued before and many other specialist charities demonstrate against the odds every day. Yet when either the market or central state dominates from the centre, we end up with transactional, disjointed systems that breed resentment and entrench disadvantage. These structures almost will people to fail: Trainees who leave prison homeless are told by their local council they can’t get housing without Universal Credit, told by their Jobcentre they can’t get Universal Credit without a bank account, and told by their bank that they can’t get a bank account without an address. These men are trying hard to build a different life, but we are denying them the agency to do it.
How, then, do we create a justice system that promotes, rather than inhibits, supportive human relationships and enables people to take control of their lives?
More human, more effective
The starting point must be the people in the system. Take employment, for example: starting with the person, we can see that someone’s chance of staying in work is intrinsically linked to whether they have stable housing, mental health, living skills and more. It therefore makes little sense for officials in Whitehall to design and deliver a prisoner employment strategy in isolation from their prisoner accommodation policy, from their health strategy, drugs policy, and so on.
Terms like ‘people-centred’ and ‘holistic’ can feel trite. But it is vital to create services that are more human and connected around the person. There are a number of ways to go about this: a more local approach to join up disconnected services, a focus on workforce skill and culture, single points of contact, and a more flexible approach to involve specialist voluntary sector organisations. These are some of the steps needed – not more empty promises of ‘innovation’ (mentioned six times in MoJ’s press release).
What do these ideas look like in practice and how do we get there? Switchback is working with others to develop this thinking and turn it into action – get in touch to join us at firstname.lastname@example.org.