In 2014, Unlock came to the end of a landmark 9-year project in developing access to basic bank accounts for people in prison before release. We were pleased to publish a report (see below) which reflected on the progress that we have made, and that set out a number of recommendations to the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), prisons and the banking industry, so that the progress is sustained and developed even further.
Back in 2005, we first identified the issue of people coming out of prison who had managed to secure employment, but were losing these opportunities because they didn’t have a bank account to get paid their wages into. The personal testimony below demonstrates the importance of this. It seemed like a simple problem to resolve, to open an account before release, but there were a number of complex underlying issues that stood in the way, not least the lack of engagement from many banks, and the lack of awareness of the issue across prisons.
During the 9 years that followed, we worked at various levels; piloting a process in a small number of prisons; rolling this out into further prisons; working with the banking industry to develop a fair and sustainable process; working with specific banks to develop their operating processes; and providing training/support to prisons. The work took much longer than we had expected. What began as a small charitably-funded pilot project ultimately ended up in a national campaign involving significant political and media attention.
And we are immensely proud of the progress we made. In 2013-14 alone, 5,936 basic bank accounts were opened for people in prison, ready for them to use once they were released. In total, we have helped to set up 74 prison/banking programmes, and overall 114 prisons have links with a high-street bank. Ultimately, all prisons that want and need a basic bank account opening programme had one in place at the end of the project, which was the principal aim of the work.
This work shows the value of being responsive to the issues that people are facing. Unlock’s independence, and “ear to the ground, voice at the top” approach enabled us to achieve systemic change to a long-standing problem.
In 2014, we handed over day-to-day responsibility to NOMS for sustaining the work that we have pioneered.
The importance of this work – A personal testimony
“I was in an open prison a couple of years ago. Having gone into prison with the loss of everything, I had no bank account, no ID, no anything. I was approached by staff one day and told about this wonderful scheme which would allow me to get started again. Very simply, the bank was Barclays and they had the most amazing very straightforward system for getting a bank account open. I would highly praise them, and Unlock for organising it, and for the way that is done. The account is opened, you have the bank card and details a couple of weeks later, and they are kept in your private property until you are released from prison. So you are actually ready to go the day you get out.
But to me the biggest things are the personal things. Self-esteem is a big thing and the bank account helped a great deal with that. Can you imagine what it is like not to have a bank account? Just for a moment. Not so much the practicalities but what it says about you. Why haven’t you got one? People give you funny looks, or you suspect they do. Getting a bank account in prison made me feel a great deal better about myself; that I belonged, and that reintegration was possible. Prison, for all the wrongs you have done to get you there, is a very lonely place, and that’s one of the problems when it comes to reintegrating when you get out. Anything that can be done to improve things there will help people.
Confidentiality is another thing: the way the accounts are set up. When you go to your branch when you get out, the staff don’t know you are an ex-offender. There is nothing on the system to say: this man is a former criminal; this account was set up in prison. That’s a fantastic feeling: to walk in to a branch as a normal citizen. One of the things that really hit me when I came out of prison, when I got onto the Jubilee line to head home, I was absolutely paranoid, that I had ‘prisoner’ stamped across my forehead. I kept looking round the carriage thinking ’they know’. And I’m not normally a paranoid person. A lot of people go through that. But when you walk into a bank branch and know they will treat you as a normal customer, and that rubber stamp on your forehead is no longer there, that is a fantastic feeling.
There are too many things, emotionally, that drag people back into prison. I know it sounds strange but I think bank accounts and having them set up for you, can help reduce re-offending. It’s one thing out of the way. You’ve got your benefits when you come out, you get paid when you find employment, it’s just one less box you have to tick. I think it’s a fantastic scheme and long may it continue, and be rolled out across the estate.”
Person with convictions, released from prison
Impact Report (2014) – Summary
Developing effective, efficient & secure access to banking for people in prison before release
This report has been written at the end of a landmark 9-year project for Unlock. It is designed to summarise and reflect on the progress that has been made to date, as well as outline some of the key priority areas moving forward. The main focus of the report is on the latter part of the project, which was the national campaign which ran from 2010 to 2014.
Summary of recent progress
In the final year of the project (2013-14);
- 5936 basic bank accounts were opened for people in prison ready for them to use once they were released
- RBS began a 6 month pilot in 9 prisons, expanding into a further 6 prisons by the end of the year
- HSBC expanded from a pilot to cover 15 prisons in total
- Santander completed a review of their pilot, and continued to operate in the original 5 pilot prisons
During the course of the 9-year project;
- Unlock has helped to set up 74 prison/banking programmes
- 114 prisons now have links with a high-street bank
- The ‘big 5’ current account providers (Barclays, Halifax (part of Lloyds Banking Group), HSBC, Santander and RBS) are all actively involved, as well as a significant contribution from Co-operative.
- By the end of 2013, all prisons that wanted and needed a basic bank account opening programme had one
Summay of recommendations
This section provides a summary of the recommendations that are made in this report. They are discussed in more detail at the end of the report, alongside an explanation of the reasons behind the recommendations.
1. Single point of contact for prisons and banks
- NOMS should ensure that there is a single point of contact for prisons to contact if they’re looking for advice or support in their prison.
- NOMS should ensure that there is a single point of contact for banks to contact if they’re looking for advice or support about their work in prison.
- To perform these roles appropriately, we recommend that NOMS dedicates 0.5 FTE staff to overseeing this work at a national level. This is considerably less than the amount of resources Unlock has dedicated to this over the years, and reflects the stage at which this work is now at. A concern we have is that it is unclear at this point whether this level of resource will be achieved.
2. ‘Zero-account’ prisons / ‘Low-volume’ prisons / Meeting needs
- Work needs to be done by NOMS to understand why those prisons have not opened any accounts (particularly those that are soon-to-be ‘resettlement prisons’) and what works need to be done to improve this, as it would suggest that people are being released from those prisons with the need.
- NOMS should establish a standard framework which allows prisons to assess ‘need’ amongst people in prison, and put in place a system that allows for this to be collected centrally so that ‘need’ can be matched with the number of accounts actually opened
3. Regular reviews
NOMS should ensure that regular reviews be carried out assessing levels of account opening across the prison estate and across the banks. This review process should capture which banks are covering which prisons, the processes in place, the contacts at each bank, the contacts at each prison, the number of accounts opened, and any issues that are outstanding.
4. Resources in prisons
NOMS should ensure that prisons are sufficiently resourced, and appropriately targeted, to ensure that they’re able to help anybody who wants and needs a basic bank account before they are released by supporting them to apply for a bank account with the nominated bank in their prison. Priority should be placed on those prisons designated as ‘resettlement prisons’, although recognising that any prison that releases individuals directly into the community will need to have access to a system like this.
5. Share of prisons by the banks
NOMS and the BBA should work with those banks having a disproportionately large number of prisons than is sustainable for them (e.g. Co-operative), and work with them and the other major current account providers to re-allocate those prisons to banks that, given their size, should take on further prisons (e.g. Santander, RBS; and those yet to be formally involved – i.e. Yorkshire Bank and Nationwide Building Society). This should be done in an open and transparent way, acknowledging that this is not a ‘competitive’ area, but rather an issue that the banking industry has collectively committed to support.
6. Local arrangements breaking down
Where a local arrangement breaks-down, NOMS should provide support to the prison to make contact with that specific bank nationally, to include the prison within their national framework.
7. Bank processes – Simplification and standardisation
NOMS and the BBA should consider convening the banks to look at what levels of simplification and standardisation could be achieved across the banks.
8. High return-rates
Prisons should ensure that they are ‘checking’ applications before they are submitted to the bank, to ensure that they are completed properly and that the appropriate paperwork is enclosed.
9. Pre-release banking in addition to savings provision
All prisons that release people directly into the community should have a system in place which enables people to open a basic bank account before they are released. Alongside this, prisons that have people with a long time left until release should have a system in place which enables people to set up a suitable savings product.
10. Broader ‘managing money in prison’ issues
NOMS should continue to improve the policies and procedures that are in place that govern the way that people in prison can manage an external bank account, to ensure that there is greater flexibility and ultimately the ability for individuals to prepare effectively for their release.
Moving forward, support to both prisons and banks will be provided by NOMS (now known as HMPPS). The lead is Rachael Reynolds. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is also a functional mailbox for banking-related contact: email@example.com
Questions regarding this report can be directed to Christopher Stacey, co-director at Unlock. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Further policy work on this issue will be taken forward as part of our policy work on bank accounts.
Time is Money (2010)
Making Bank Accounts Accessible to Offenders – Post Project Review Report (with NOMS, June 2007)
Banking on a Fresh Start (Liverpool John Moores University, August 2008)
Still Banking on a Fresh Start (Liverpool John Moores University, November 2009)
Unlocking Credit Unions (2013)