Marking her 25th year with St Mungo’s, few have made more impact on how we support our clients than Samantha Cowie.
As Head of Criminal Justice Services, Sam tells us about the work she leads here at St Mungo’s, where housing meets the criminal justice system.
Sam and her team support people to either sustain the accommodation they have when they go into prison (so that, if their sentence is short enough, it will be waiting for them upon their release), or if they can’t save it, to help them relinquish it in a way that won’t diminish their housing rights when they do leave prison.
If they have no accommodation or won’t have anywhere to live when they’re released, Sam and her team help them find housing.
There is a strong link between prison and homelessness, Sam explains.
“Many people who find themselves homeless are at a higher risk of finding themselves engaged with the criminal justice system in some way… If you’ve got nowhere to live, no money or you can’t claim benefits you may feel you have no other choice than to, for example, shoplift. If you’re suffering with your mental health, you might be self-medicating with drugs, drink, antisocial behaviour happens…”
People also have a higher risk of experiencing homelessness when they are released from prison and are far more likely to reoffend if they have nowhere to live.
In her 25 years, Sam has fought tirelessly to get the housing needs of prisoners taken into consideration; even here at St Mungo’s.
“When I first started working in Criminal Justice Services, I remember having to make the argument that it’s an integral part of what St Mungo’s does,” says Sam.
“It took a long time for this link to be recognised across the whole sector: that part of our work in Criminal Justice Services is to highlight that people on the streets can end up offending and in prison, and people who’ve been in prison often come out and end up on the street. Either way, they end up in our hostels, or from our hostels they end up in prison.”
Sadly, perhaps understandably in some ways, there is still a lack of public empathy for prisoners.
The element of rehabilitation is often overridden by the idea of prison as a punishment, and the negative impact of incarceration becomes something that is ‘deserved’.
“People don’t want to hear about criminals being supported in a way that they see as unfair, and that includes access to housing or services,” says Sam.
“And yet we know that prisons are full of young people who have come through the care system, been failed by it, and who have been institutionalised to the point of not functioning outside the institution.
“And when efforts are made to rehabilitate through activities like sports, the arts, education and helping them get jobs and a home, people are often angry about it because they see it as a reward.”
The idea of reward and punishment misses the point of rehabilitation, Sam explains.
“We’re not making excuses for bad choices, but quite often there are also explanations as to why people end up in that situation, and we are trying to undo that damage – the alternative is we lock people up and do nothing, no effort to rehabilitate, and the cycle continues.
“It can cost around £50,000 a year to keep a person in prison: that’s a lot of money if someone keeps going back again and again. Having a home goes some way in breaking that cycle.”
On occasion, people experiencing homelessness even offend because prison feels like a step up from life
on the streets, deliberately getting arrested to return to the familiarity of the prison system.
While the numbers are not quite as drastic as some have reported, Sam says it is something her team sees, but most often it happens in the run up to Christmas.
“If you’ve been institutionalised and you don’t have that family dynamic, Christmas is a really stressful time of year for people,” she says. “It can be a stark reminder of what you don’t have.”
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