Why prisoners are being called to account

Going straight can be difficult if you're financially excluded, but there's good news from the banks.

Having been in and out of prison since he was 13, Peter from Bradford (not his real name) knows how hard it is to be accepted back into society. But when the 29-year-old is released from Ranby Prison in Nottinghamshire next month he will have more hope and ambition than ever before.

What's the difference now? For the first time he has a bank account and he believes it could make all the difference in getting a home and a job and moving on with his life. "When I got a job in the past they wanted my bank account details and obviously I couldn't give it to them because I didn't have one," he explains. "So I had to use my family's. But you can only use it for so long. They were getting on my back about opening my own account and I ended up losing my job, or I quit because I got sick of the hassling."

Without financial stability Peter's opportunities have been limited. He has lost several agency jobs when they found out that he used his friend's bank account to have his wages paid in. The lack of an account has also made it difficult for Peter to get a home. He has lived independently, but found himself unable to cope with the demands of paying utility bills and rent, which has led to him losing his accommodation.

Despite several attempts to open an account, Peter – who is dyslexic and has no qualifications and no settled home – has found it impossible to do so. But thanks to a Co-operative Bank initiative, he has finally got one. "I tried lots of times to get a bank account on the outside but I didn't have the right ID," Peter explains. "I got one sorted inside with The Co-operative – I can't believe how easy it was, so quick to get one in here."

The fact that a bank has finally trusted him with an account has given Peter confidence in his future once he's released. "I want to stay out, I have had enough. I've got qualifications as well while I've been in prison, something I've never had before – it's given me a chance."

His chances are good, according to research by Liverpool John Moores University. It studied the behaviour of a group of prisoners who opened an account with the Co-op before being released from HMP Forest Bank prison in Salford. Only 39 per cent of those who opened an account re-offended, compared with a national re-offending rate of 59.9 per cent for prisoners serving sentences of less than 12 months. In other words, re-offending rates were cut by a third.

Two out of five people in prison surveyed by the Legal Service Research Centre have no current account or other financial product. In the outside community the figure is one in 20. Given the difference that having a bank account makes, it was great to hear this week that Barclays has extended a pilot scheme offering accounts to prisoners. The scheme now covers all 14 prisons in the East of England prison region.

The bank has been working with Unlock, the National Association of Reformed Offenders, in three prisons since 2007. Its scheme, like the Co-op's, helps people coming to the end of their sentence to open basic bank accounts. These accounts were launched by the Labour government six years ago to reduce social exclusion. They come with a cash card but there's no overdraft facility. So account holders can set up direct debits and standing orders to pay bills, but they can't go into the red.

"The long-term financially excluded, such as prisoners, are among the hardest to reach in society," says Mark Parsons of Barclays. "Quite often they have poor financial literacy skills and don't have the confidence to walk into a bank. Having a bank account will make it easier for prisoners to rebuild their lives."

The first bank to offer accounts to prisoners was the Halifax, which set up a charitable partnership with Unlock in 2004 in three prisons – Coldingley, Wormwood Scrubs and Camp Hill. The Co-op followed in 2005 in conjunction with Kalyx, which manages Forest Bank Prison. Since then, its scheme has been extended to 30 prisons across the country, allowing it to open accounts for more than 5,000 prisoners.

Barclays' scheme began in 2008 in HMPs Blundeston, Norwich and Littlehey. Since then the bank has opened accounts for 300 prisoners. Its move to extend the scheme this week should mean many more prisoners are soon given a crucial leg-up when they come to be released. But more banks need to get involved.

"Having a bank account is not a luxury, it's a necessity for modern life," says Chris Bath, director of projects at Unlock. "Having a bank account provides a crucial foundation upon which people leaving prison can rebuild their lives. It helps them to secure a job and get somewhere to live, the two most important factors in successfully reintegrating into society."

The Prison Service is extremely keen on the scheme as it knows the difference a bank account can make to a prisoner. "Prison provides a period of stability in which financial capability training can be given and bank accounts opened in preparation for release," a Prison Service spokesperson says.

"Gaining employment, living in stable accommodation and having the ability to use and access appropriate financial products all contribute to the rehabilitation process.

"Engaging the expertise of independent organisations like businesses and charities is vital to changing people's lives and stopping the revolving door of crime."

Getting more banks on board is crucial. According to Unlock, many prisons have tried hard to establish relationships with local bank branches or head offices but have been unable to make any progress. The charity is working towards a national agreement between prisons and the banking industry.

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