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No place like home: Prisons and homelessness

Updated Thursday, 8th October 2020

The homeless and especially those who are rough sleepers, comprise a disproportionate number of people in prison in England and Wales. Dr David Scott looks at why prisons and the streets are not a replacement for a true home.

In 2018 The Chain Reports found that 15% of newly sentenced people in prison had reported being homeless before entering custody. They also found that a third people sleeping on the streets in London in 2018 had served some time in prison. Further, in 2018 of the 7,745 women sent to prison in England and Wales, 3,262 were recorded as ‘being of no fixed abode’ when arriving in custody, which is approximately 42% of the prison intake for women prisoners in that year.

It has long been documented that people living on the streets are largely without work, privacy, decent food, or shelter and are often without good health. For many homeless people, life in prison is likely to exacerbate already existing personal troubles and health problems and does very little to address the existential crises generated by being without a home in wider society.

Home is a place of intimacy, familiarity and meaning. It is a place of openness and is essential to the foundation, development and stabilisation of human identities, and the creating a sense of ‘rootedness’. Home is about a sense of ‘belonging’ and feeling part of a wider community. A home is safe, familiar and comfortable. Home is a place of rest, recuperation, care and respite, something essential for the well-being of all humans.

A homeless man sleeping in a park Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Image by jbd30

The prison is not an environment that can deliver the beneficial place characteristics of a home. Through inherent violations of human dignity and the fear, or actual presence, of violence, the prison place blocks the ability to be emotionally vulnerable or open when encountering other people. The prison cannot be a sustained place of habitation and dwelling, nor are prisons environments conducive to delivering care and the generation of a sense of ‘belonging’ and inclusiveness. Instead, the prison is characterised by sadness, melancholia, insecurity and a sense of loss. 

Prisoners long for a secure dwelling place where they can relax and be themselves, but the place characteristics of prisons prevent this. A prison, whatever the physical conditions, will always be a pale imitation of a natural home. It cannot reproduce, at least for any significant time, the love, joy, safety and stability of a home that generate human life and vitality. The prison place is characterised instead by discomfort, fear and a lack of security and safety. Prisons may then be best described as dead places that overwhelmingly lead to endings and the breaking of ties and bonds, as well as being haunted by the pains and sufferings of their past generated by institutionally structured violence and hostility.

Prisons are institutions of legitimate abandonment. Abandonment, which is when someone is banished from society or forcefully separated from previous human connectedness, can dislodge a person from their attachments to a previous sense of place and time.

For prisoners who have previously experienced a sense of ‘home’, the abandonment, loneliness, dehumanisation of prisons may now be felt as something akin to being homeless. Like homeless people living on the streets, prisons can destroy lives and leave people struggling for survivalism and existing as a ‘bare life’ rather than truly living. Whereas it does provide shelter and some basic necessities, the prison ‘zone of abandonment’ can also lead to rootlessness, the breakdown human intactness and a penal abyss of hopelessness and sometimes self-harm, suicidal ideation and death. 

Uprooted from their social milieu and former lifeworld, the prisoner is turned into a stranger who is likely to experience social death – that is, the ‘death’ of human relationships, status and moral standing and in its extreme the non-recognition of a persons shared humanity. It also means to be ‘out of place’ – to be estranged and Othered. Estrangement entails removing someone from their previous life. It is to be shifted from familiarity to strangeness and to be re-assigned to a new devalued status. Estrangement is premised on the process of being forcefully made stranger from that which was previously inhabited as home.

Prisons are institutions of legitimate abandonment. Abandonment, which is when someone is banished from society or forcefully separated from previous human connectedness, can dislodge a person from their attachments to a previous sense of place and time. The prisoner – an estranged Other - inevitably experiences abandonment as they are no longer part of their former lifeworld and have apparently lost any previous claims on the wider community for help or assistance. Prisoners are often neither seen nor heard. Abandonment results in detachment, loss and desolation and the prisoner as de-socialised and depersonalised enforced stranger.

To conclude, there are undoubtedly certain similarities between the problem of homelessness and the failure of the prison to engender the necessary place characteristics for it be a habitable dwelling generating security, love and care. Human wellbeing and growth for everyone require our lifeworld to be situated in a place of safety – what we call home. Like living on the streets, a prison is no place like home.

References

Grierson, J.(2019) “Number of homeless women sent to prison doubles since 2015” in the Guardian 3rd Jul 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jul/03/number-female-prisoners-recorded-homeless-doubles-since-2015 

Homeless Link (2018) Working with Prison Leavers London: Homeless Link  https://www.homeless.org.uk/sites/default/files/site-attachments/Working%20with%20prison%20leavers%20March%202018.pdf 

Rough Sleeping in London (CHAIN Report) (2018): https://data.london.gov.uk/dataset/chain-reports 

Rough sleeping in London (CHAIN reports) - London Datastore

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