Prisoners Fear Freedom in Crisis-Hit Europe

The cost of freedom under austerity is weighing on ex-prisoners who struggle with financial instability on release from jail and become more likely to re-offend, continuing a vicious circle of crime and punishment — just as prisons approach full capacity across Britain and the rest of Europe, charities told CNBC.

Stephen Marks | The Images Bank | Getty Images

According to reports from nationwide prison organizations, the majority of ex-offenders struggle to cope with debt, housing costs, unemployment, and austerity on release from prison.

They told CNBC that these financial factors are borne out by the rate of recidivism — or relapse into crime — that has reached record highs in 2012 with 90 percent of prisoners already having previous convictions, according to the Ministry of Justice.

Chris Bath, executive director of Unlock, the National Association of Reformed Offenders, told CNBC that prisoners face “enormous financial barriers” on release from prison, and he warned that the cycle of crime, punishment and re-offending — that costs the British economy 95 billion pounds ($150 billion) a year — is set to continue if the financial hardship faced by prisoners on release is not addressed.

“At least in prison you have a roof over your head and food in your stomach,” he said. “The moment you walk out of prison you become a social leper, a low-skilled ex-con — you are completely lost and you become nothing.”

With 75 percent of employers saying they would reject someone with a conviction, Bath told CNBC that it was extremely hard for ex-offenders to return to the “straight and narrow” and find a job in a society where even the most skilled and experienced workers cannot find employment.

Indeed, with most prisoners reported to be “financially excluded,” even before they enter prison, and a third having no bank account, according to research by the Civil and Social Justice Survey, the chances of “going straight” and returning to a decent a law-abiding way of life when no one will employ you is slim, Bath said.

However, with 230,000 people going through the criminal justice system every year and 9.2 million of Britons of working age having criminal records, according to the Police Crime Database, Bath told CNBC that there is an urgent problem of millions of people exiting the prison system to a “society that doesn’t want them back.”

“As long as mainstream society rejects reformed offenders,” Bath said, “There will always be a criminal society ready to welcome them back with open arms.”

Bath noted that the peak rate of re-offending was the couple of days after release, when the bleak reality of freedom without home, food, or money — apart from the £46 "prison discharge grant" given on release, which the Citizen’s Advice bureau has said “was insufficient to last a week, let alone the 11 to 18 days which are the target benefit claim processing time” — hits home.

Add the factors up and slipping back into crime is all too easy.

“Imagine how far £46 will get you — it would last probably a day, or two at the most," Bath said. "These are human beings coming out of custody with no finances practically — their chances of re-offending are pretty high.”

The rates of financial instability among prisoners are high, both before and after prison according to statistics with 73 percent of offenders reported “financial exclusion” before going into prison, a third did not have a bank account and over a half had debts before entering prison.

Indeed, Nacro, the U.K.’s biggest crime-reduction charity, told CNBC that 23,000 prisoners in Britain, or more than one in four, had financial problems linked to their offending, and that their debts worsened during their time inside, affecting their prospects on release.

“Prisoners face a big challenge when they leave prison,” Nacro told CNBC. “If they do not have a job to go to, or family support, or even a roof over their head, this can have serious implications on their future and their chance of staying out of trouble.”

The charity states that tackling the root causes of crime, such as debt, housing, unemployment (learn more), and financial instability must be addressed. It added that during a recession (learn more), the cost of keeping a prisoner — 39,573 pounds a year ($62,763) — it’s not “practical going forward.”

“We must reduce the amount of people going to prison because prisons are overcrowded, expensive, and don’t work for many offenders … they should be reserved for those that commit the most serious crimes and for those that present a danger to society,” according to Nacro.

Indeed, these words may well be heeded by the new Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, who replaced Ken Clarke in David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle on Tuesday. Clarke oversaw two years of what he called a “rehabilitation revolution,” of which he said that "prisons must be places of punishment, but also of education, hard work and change …. Simply locking people up for the sake of it is a waste of public funds. We must have other penalties on offer."

Grayling may have inherited something of a poisoned chalice as prison rates soar — the latest report from the Ministry of Justice shows that 85 British jails are reporting overcrowding, as the national prison population swells to 86,801.

As the population approaches the useable operation capacity of 90,707 prisoners, concerns over the inefficacy of prisons are growing, with prison numbers reaching bursting point and creating a “serious risk of riots,” according to Prison Officers' Association.

Indeed, as Greek prison officers strike against overcrowding and safety issues, unions such as the European Public Services Union (EPSU) reported that the “effects of austerity on prisons are like salt on an open wound.

“Higher crime levels and other long-term social problems are a high price to pay for the reduction of public debt and deficit levels,” the EPSU told CNBC.

Crime is estimated to cost the U.K. 73 billion pounds a year, prisons cost 3.78 billion pounds a year (an increase of almost 40 percent since 2004, according to the Crime and Justice Organization) and re-offending costs the economy 13 billion pounds a year, and charities fear that the economic roots of crime — and the human cost of punishment — will not go away soon.

“It’s tragically true that, for many offenders leaving prison, they will face financial barriers to re-integrating into society — even if they are committed to not going back to that world of crime,” Chris Bath from Unlock said. “Convicts are told by society to go and ‘sort themselves out’ in prison, and then when they’re released, society tells them, ‘You’re a con, we don’t want you back.’ ”

—By’s Holly Ellyatt