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Offender management and rehabilitation

Addressing prison overcrowding through the Early Release scheme

Headshot of a young man, looking directly into the camera, smiling.

In October of 2023, a host of measures were announced by the Government to address the crisis of overpopulated prisons, including:

  • up to £400 million for 800 new prison cells,
  • the suspension of short term sentences, and
  • the introduction of the Early Release on License scheme.

Four months since the announcements, Catch22’s Hiba Warsame, who is a Prisoner Offender Manager at HMP Thameside, offers her perspective on the Early Release scheme. She explores whether the scheme is likely to achieve its intended goals and how the current challenges within the system may impact its success.

What is the Early Release scheme?

The Early Release scheme, known officially as the “End of Custody Supervised License” (ECSL) scheme, marks a significant shift in the release policies for offenders, allowing them to be released up to 18 days early. The intention is to use it in certain target areas to try and reduce overcrowding. This is not an entirely new initiative – in fact the End of Custody License (ECL), which also allowed some prisoners to be released 18 days early, was used between 2007 and 2010 to help deal with prison overcrowding.

The eligibility criteria for early release primarily targets a specific demographic of offenders that are serving 12 months or less in custody. Those not eligible include people convicted od sexual offences, terrorism connected offences, category A prisoners, and those serving a recall. Heads of Offender Management Units (OMUs) are provided with a list of eligible prisoners, which they then use to conduct further eligibility checks and contact Community Offender Managers (COMs) to ensure there is a robust risk management and release plan in place. COMs can complete exemption forms to be escalated if they assess the early release to cause an increase in risk.

Freeing up space in prison

 While there isn’t available data on the current ESCL scheme’s success in preventing people from returning to prison or the number of freed-up spaces, it’s worth considering the potential positive impact based on past experiences with similar strategies. Following the introduction of the ECL scheme in 2007, reoffending rates were reported to be as low as 3%.

It should be noted that in terms of implementing the scheme, there was support in place to help those being released. Those on ECL were able to receive a weekly subsistence payment of £47.12 in addition to the discharge grant. In addition, at the Governor’s discretion, prisoners were able to get a weekly rent payment (between £50 and £70, depending on the period of ECL and the area) payable to a genuine accommodation provider, and a further discretionary payment for a deposit.

So schemes like this do have the potential to free up space – but at what cost?

A challenge to effective rehabilitation?

Key to any early-release decision is its potential impact on the individual’s rehabilitation and ability to reintegrate successfully into the community. There is a valid concern that an accelerated release might compromise the measures in place towards effective rehabilitation.

Releasing individuals without a robust support system in place (to help with finances, accommodation, health and wellbeing) can result in a revolving-door cohort of offenders. Indeed, disturbing statistics indicate that over 50% of individuals released after serving less than twelve months are susceptible to reoffending, a figure that climbs to 58% for those serving sentences of six months or less. Not only does this highlight the inadequacy of short sentences in effective rehabilitation, it also raises serious doubts about the long-term success of initiatives like the Early Release scheme.

Of course, when it comes to release, the priority is always to ensure that both the offender has all the wrap-around support they need to thrive in the community, and that there is no risk to public safety. However, with a probation service already stretched to support the needs of those being released on their actual release date, there is a question mark around how the system will cope if the caseload is increased through early releases.

I know from my work in the Offender Management Unit (OMU) that effective rehabilitation is reliant on the right support being in place at the right time.

My experience of implementing the Early Release scheme

 HMP Thameside, where I work, is one of the prisons within scope of promoting this scheme.

In my role as a Prison Offender Manager, collaboration with community supervisors in probation is integral to assessing release plans for individuals transitioning back into society. Our focus extends to assessing whether license conditions are in place, evaluating accommodation plans, and addressing any concerns with victim liaison officers. We are aided by rehabilitative agencies within the resettlement team and substance misuse agency.

What we’re currently experiencing is a spike in demand for community probation and OMU services, which, due to the rising prison population, have become strained and overwhelmed by the increased volume of cases. The strain on these critical support systems raises questions as to whether the early Release Scheme will negatively impact reoffending rates, even if it does manage to temporarily reduce the immediate prison population.

An example of the Early Release scheme in practice

One man I worked with had been released through the Early Release scheme directly into homelessness. Unsurprisingly, he could not comply with the license conditions he was subject to. He re-offended soon after and was subjected to a Fixed Term Recall (FTR). He asked for help from the resettlement services in prison to get an address, however his recall was so short that no productive work could be done.

The Community Accommodation Service Tier 3 (CAS3) scheme has been effective in supporting with accommodation for those at risk of being released into homelessness. However, we know that providing long-term and stable accommodation for prison-leavers is still a huge challenge, even when they qualify for a bed immediately on release, whether that release is early or not. 

This example speaks to the very real circumstances individuals are facing upon leaving custody. Outside of risk management, very often the much needed support to live a crime-free life in the community is simply not there.

The importance of support pre and post-release

As policymakers and stakeholders continue to grapple with the evolving landscape of the prison capacity crisis, and schemes such as Early Release come and go, one thing remains strikingly clear; there must be wrap-around support in place for individuals before their release into the community.

Without it, how can we expect those “freed-up” cells to remain empty for long?

– Hiba Warsame, Prisoner Offender Manager at HMP Thameside