I am a fully paid-up member of that substratum of society known among criminologists as the mad, the bad and the sad. I have spent 22 of the past 30 years in prison. After my last three releases from custody I lasted in the real world for 42 days, 160 days and 27 days, respectively. Currently serving three years for stealing a barrister’s briefcase, I am due for release in a few days.
Since a high proportion of prisoners are reoffenders and since the prison population of England and Wales will soon rise above an all-time high of 75,000 – causing a building programme that would not have disgraced the City of London planners after the Great Fire of 1666 – you would expect authority to be making plans for my re-entry into society. The first three weeks after discharge are considered to be the most crucial. If someone is going to reoffend, the statisticians tell us, it is most likely to be within those first three weeks. The ex-prisoner is even more likely to relapse if he has nowhere to go.
There lies my first great difficulty. I have no family and nowhere obvious to live. Because I have stronger attachments inside the penal machine, I soon begin to feel isolated and marginalised outside. You may think that here is a classic case of a man wholly institutionalised. He should be put, you would say, into a hostel or a halfway house. He should then be able to turn to probation officers, drugs counsellors and care assistants for help and advice.
What a great idea. Some time ago, the Home Office, in order to reduce overcrowding in prisons, extended its home detention curfew scheme to prisoners serving sentences of less than four years. To be released on this “tag” (as I should like to have been), it is necessary for the ex-prisoner to have access to a telephone line into which, each night, the contraption can be plugged. Was there a hostel that would be willing to take me “on tag”, should the privilege of having one attached to my ankle be granted?
Well yes, there was, and it would, provided I could get a letter of introduction from my local probation officer. There was the rub. I didn’t have one. Because of “stretched resources”, probation officers were assigned only when prisoners had a confirmed release date. Yet my date could be confirmed only when and if I was awarded my tag.
Never one to be daunted by the bamboozling non sequitur of a never-ending M C Escher staircase, I turned to a Christian hostel (I play the organ in the prison chapel every Sunday morning) on Clapham Common, available to “male ex-offenders between 18 and 65 who are homeless and want to grow in their faith”.
For the assessment interview, I showered, shaved, polished my shoes, ironed my shirt and swotted up on the Bible, in case they asked for my favourite quotation. I came up with an eminently suitable extract from Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
The only thing that interested the interviewers, however, was my homosexuality. Were I to be offered a place at Charismatic House, they asked, how would I deal with this moral defect in my character? Could I assure them that I would indulge in neither lewd nor libidinous behaviour with any of their other “guests”? Desperate for my tag, I swallowed all this derogation and agreed with everything they were suggesting. They thanked me for my frankness and said they would have to go away and pray about it.
In the meantime, having just had my wisdom teeth extracted, I tapped a couple of Valium pills from a neighbour in the prison to ensure that I got some sleep. The next morning, I awoke to the call of the drug testers. I came up positive for benzodiazepines. The adjudicating governor refused to accept my defence that I had taken the unprescribed Valium to alleviate pain, even after I showed her the holes in my gum. She fined me, had me locked into my cell for seven nights, and removed my status in the top tier of the incentives and earned privileges scheme.
Later that same week, our prison chaplain called me up for a “confidential” chat. The Christian hostel was worried because it had recently taken in a vulnerable young man who had been forcibly and repeatedly buggered during the prison sentence he had just completed. An openly homosexual “guest” would be too much of a risk. Though it was unable (by law) to exclude me purely on account of my sexuality, the interviewers were still praying for guidance when they received the information that I had failed a drug test. This was the “sign” for which they had been waiting, they had told our incredulous chaplain.
I went to talk to the representative-in-residence of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. Two hours later I emerged with a wedge of printouts, from a computer database, on the work of six separate agencies. I duly wrote six letters. Only one brought a reply. The Corporation of London (God bless ’em) sent me their allocation policy statement and an invitation to “register your interest” in some rather swish (by the look of the glossy brochure) council accommodation close by Farringdon Tube station. Apparently they had a duty to provide it, especially if I could prove some local or familial link to the area. I wrote thanking them profusely for their interest and explaining that I had been “broadly based” in and around the City for the past ten years or so. At the time of my arrest, I explained, I was “living” in a bivouac that I had built in a park between Smithfield Market and Finsbury Circus.
They in turn wrote back saying they would be pleased to put me on their housing list. All I now had to do was send them a copy of my birth certificate and National Insurance number.
The birth certificate would be easy enough. Or so I thought. It seemed, according to the Family Records Centre in Islington, that because I had been adopted as a baby, my birth certificate was not held by the local register of births, marriages and deaths. It was 300 miles to the north, at Southport, in the Office of National Statistics, which was happy to supply me with the required entry on the Adopted Children Register, on receipt of £11.50. As I earned only £8 a week (teaching other prisoners to read and write), I had to go without tobacco for the following two weeks. Some might say this was a good thing.
Next came the National Insurance number. Another application form had to be sent to a tax office in Nottingham. Where had I worked (“Please mention every employer and give address and telephone number”) for the past 25 years? Where had I lived (“last five addresses with postcodes”) for the past five years? How had I mislaid my National Insurance number? I couldn’t imagine the tax office having any record of my stretches spent sewing mailbags, weaving fishnets, painting garden gnomes, assembling tractor components, even welding together the bars that held us in. The last time I had worked in any conventional sense of the word, the Queen was celebrating her silver jubilee. I had been employed as a cub reporter for a biweekly local paper in Perthshire. “Put that down, then,” said the Nacro woman. “It’ll be on their computer somewhere.”
Time passed. At my next release plan progress conference, by which time I had still heard absolutely nothing from the tax people, a telephone call was sanctioned to see if matters in Nottingham could not somehow be expedited. It took us a good 20 minutes to get through the virtual reality telephone exchange, until finally, after what seemed almost the whole movement of a Mozart symphony, a voice came on the line.
Yes, they had received the request for my National Insurance number, but no they couldn’t send it to a serving prisoner because all inmates’ mail was likely to be opened and read by a censor, and that would contravene the terms of the government’s new Data Protection Act. They could send my number, the voice in Nottingham said, once I was released to an address outside. But the voice could not or would not understand that in order to get an address I had to have the number first.
I could always nominate in writing someone at the Department for Works and Pensions to act as a conduit, the voice said. Then the tax office would be able to send the number to him or her (for such information could be shared by “joined up” government agencies) who would forward it on to me, who would send it on to the Corporation of London.
As I write, this matter has still not been resolved. I am being asked to prove who I am although I am already in prison, presumably under my own name as confirmed by my fingerprints and DNA. I don’t suppose meantime I’ve moved far up the Corporation of London’s housing list. As things stand, I shall have my “no fixed address” discharge grant of just under £100, the fee from this article, and a “28-day letter” from the prison to prove that I am indeed homeless to the man on the door at the night shelter.
Of all the departments and agencies that I have come into contact with throughout this frustrating and humiliating odyssey, Nacro has been the most helpful and concerned. The lady called me up again the other day to tell me that I was eligible to apply for a community care grant for my release essentials. When I objected, saying I didn’t believe any of the funding local authorities would want to know, the Nacro lady demurred. “Of course they will. If you are going to be homeless, then you’re going to need a sleeping bag, some warm clothes, a pair of boots, all sorts of things. That is what the CCG is for. You might as well fill in the form. And as a matter of interest I should tell you that they usually give applicants about half of what they ask for, so cost it accordingly.”
When I returned to my cell to complete this impressive 32-page document, I nearly fainted. Right at the top of the form, the very first question asked was: “What is your National Insurance number?” If I hadn’t laughed, I’d have probably cried.