Call for more prisoner bank accounts

prison bars
Image caption The Co-op bank is helping prisoners get a bank account

Having a bank account can help stop prisoners re-offending, so should financial institutions be doing more to make them available?

There are more than 87,000 people in jail in England and Wales and on release almost half of them reoffend and end up back in prison. It is a cycle that is very hard to break.

One key problem faced by ex-prisoners is lack of access to a bank account. Without that, employers may be reluctant to give them a job and landlords are sometimes unwilling to rent even a room.

However most High Street banks do not offer even basic banking facilities to ex-prisoners as they do not have the list of former addresses, identity documents and credit history required.

One project is trying to change that. The Co-operative bank is working with 30 prisons and opening basic bank accounts for prisoners close to their release date.

New start

Peter is serving his sentence in Ranby Prison in Nottinghamshire. He has been in and out of custody since he was 13. He is 29 years old but has never had a bank account until now. He is due to be released this November and is determined not to return to prison as he has done in the past.

"I didn't have the right ID for a bank account. When I got a job they wanted my bank account details and obviously I couldn't give it to them as I didn't have it. They just kept on getting on my back."

Eventually Peter says the lack of an account has proved critical:

"I end up losing my job or I just quit. That's when you start reoffending again."

Image caption Peter is pleased to have his account

Application process

Prisoners become eligible if they are between two weeks and two years from release.

Peter was recommended for a Co-op basic bank account by his resettlement officer. The officer vouched for his identity and Peter then filled out a simple application form.

Once it is set up, money earned in prison can be paid into it. When the prisoner is released they are given a debit card and can set up direct debits and standing orders and have their income paid in. There are no credit facilities so ex-offenders cannot go overdrawn or get into debt.

Peter has received training in prison and hopes to find a job as a forklift truck driver or work on the railways. He says having a bank account could make a big difference to him:

" I couldn't believe how easy it was. It was so quick to get one here. It's given me a chance."

Personal identity

Senior prisoner officer Allison Palmer, who is in charge of helping Ranby prison inmates get ready for life on the outside, also believes this scheme can help stop reoffending.

"Having a bank account gives them personal identity which then opens doors to employment, to accommodation, to maintaining family ties and for personal enhancement, improving offenders own self-esteem."

Paul Jones of Liverpool John Moores University has evaluated The Co-operative Bank and its work at Forest Bank prison in Salford between 2007 and 2009. Only 39% of those who opened a bank account have reoffended: the national reoffending rate of prisoners serving sentences of less than 12 months is 59.9%.

Tim Franklin, Chief Operating Officer of The Co-operative Financial Services, said by working closely with the prison authorities, the normal stumbling blocks for opening an account can be overcome:

"These accounts are opened before the prisoner leaves the prison and therefore we have been able to satisfy ourselves that they are who they say they are, by dealing directly with the prison.

He would like to see other banks offer the same opportunity:

"Generally they are managed well, which is one of the reasons we are key proponents of this type of arrangement between banks and prisons. We have pioneered it and we think other banks should do it too."

Pilot projects

Although the Co-op is working with 30 prisons, it is a small bank and is reluctant to expand the service further.

Other banks have been slow to follow the Co-op's lead.

Barclays and Halifax have run pilots but otherwise interest has been low.

However, Brian Mairs from the British Bankers' Association believes the banking industry is taking positive steps:

"The UK's banks are working together with prison authorities to help ex-prisoners get back on their feet financially. Last year we agreed a form of ID for ex-prisoners which removed another obstacle to those seeking to open basic bank accounts."

Nevertheless, Chris Bath, Director of Projects for UNLOCK, The National Association of Reformed Offenders, thinks much more should be done:

"Having a bank account is a prerequisite not only for employment but for engagement in modern society. A few banks have shown great leadership but we need every bank on board."

BBC Radio 4's Money Box is broadcast on Saturdays at 1200 BST and repeated on Sundays at 2100 BST.

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