I am worried about a relative or friend in prison. Where can I get advice?

Pact runs the national Prisoners’ Families Helpline, a free and confidential service which offers practical and emotional support, information and advice to anyone who is affected by imprisonment.

If you believe that your relative or friend should be released early on compassionate grounds given the extreme circumstances of the coronavirus emergency, the Prisoner’s Advice Service has developed a template letter that you can use to make this request. This letter asks the prison Governor to recommend to the Secretary of State for Justice that the prisoner is released on compassionate grounds, or to consider an application for temporary release, as well as to confirm to you, either way, what steps are being taken to protect the vulnerable person in prison.

 Download template letter here

If you a believe a family member or friend in prison is at risk of harm, including harm to themselves then you should make contact with the Safer Custody team in the establishment and discuss your concerns. You can contact safer custody by phoning the main prison phone line and asking for the Safer Custody Team. The prisons are likely to be receiving high numbers of calls at the moment so please do try to be patient.

The Prison Radio Association has doubled their Family and Friends Request Show to four hours per week, allowing even more people on the outside to keep in touch with their loved ones. You can request a track for someone behind bars by visiting nationalprisonradio.com. You can listen back to these programmes there as well

What is the government strategy to protect prisoners from COVID-19?

The most up-to-date guidance about what prisons are doing to reduce the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks in prison can be found here. This page is updated when strategies are revised.

Do I qualify for early or temporary release under the Government’s COVID-19 release guidelines?

There are two separate schemes in place to reduce risks associated with COVID-19 to the prison population:

  1. Early release scheme (also known as End of Custody Temporary Release)
  2. Release on compassionate grounds (for those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19)

Early release

The most up-to-date guidance about who is eligible for early release (also known as End of Custody Temporary Release) can be found here.

According to this guidance, the following must apply for a person to be considered for early release:

  • They must be within two months of release
  • They must have served at least 50% of their sentence
  • They must be assessed as low or medium risk
  • They must have accommodation and health support in place.

A person will not be eligible for early release if any of the following apply:

  • They have symptoms of COVID-19
  • They have served less than 50% of their sentence
  • They have been convicted of COVID-19 related offences (for example, coughing at emergency workers or stealing equipment)
  • They have been convicted of sexual or violent offence
  • They pose a risk of domestic violence or child safeguarding
  • They are assessed as high risk.

Release on compassionate grounds

In response to the impact of COVID-19, it has been agreed that the following groups may be considered for release on temporary licence (ROTL), subject to individual risk assessments:

  • Pregnant women
  • Prisoners with their baby in custody
  • Those defined by NHS guidelines as ‘extremely vulnerable’

For further details, please see the government guidance here.

I am due to be released soon. Where can I get help with my resettlement needs?

Check if your prison resettlement team is still operating. Although they may not be providing face-to-face support in the prison, they may be providing support remotely (via telephone, for example). If so, they can help to contact relevant local services and/or make referrals on your behalf.

If you will be under supervision of the National Probation Service or a Community Rehabilitation Company, your probation officer or supervisor should be supporting you to prepare for release. They can also make referrals to housing providers and contact pharmacies on your behalf if you need medication. Some probation offices are closed but, as a minimum, your probation officer or supervisor should be in contact with you by phone.

If you will not be released on licence and need some help with preparing for release, you can contact us in the first instance and we will try to find local services that can help you.

I am going to be homeless on release. Where can I get help if housing services are closed?

The majority of housing offices are closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, many of the services are still operating via telephone and email, although opening hours may be reduced.

If you are having trouble contacting housing and homelessness services, you can call us directly from your prison PIN or, if you have already been released, on 0300 123 1999.

If you are released with nowhere to go and you are rough sleeping, contact Street Link on 0300 500 0914.

If you are, or will be, experiencing homelessness, Groundswell has developed resources to support you during the current COVID-19 outbreak.

How do I access my script or prescription on release?

If you have your prescription, you can go to a pharmacy to collect it. If you are self-isolating, you will need to arrange for a representative to collect it on your behalf. NHS volunteers and other local volunteer service can help you with this.

If you are under supervision of probation, you can ask your probation officer or supervisor to contact a pharmacy on your behalf for advice about accessing the medication that you need.

My Probation Service is in an area where I do not have housing.  My family live in a different area and are happy to house me. Can I be released to my family accommodation?

Housing in in short supply, particularly in this current health crisis. If you are able to stay with family (or friends) and they are happy for you to do so, this is likely to be your best option. Your probation officer or supervisor will need to approve your accommodation to ensure that your staying there will not breach your licence conditions. Assuming that this is ok, you can apply to transfer your supervision to your local Probation Service.

There are some people who are at very high risk of severe illness from coronavirus (COVID-19) because of an underlying health condition. Although you may not have any symptoms of the virus, you may still be carrying it. You should think carefully about moving into your family home if anybody in the household falls within the high risk category.

My family member is being released from prison. They can’t come back home because I am self isolating. Where can they go?

If they have a probation officer or supervisor, they should speak to them in the first instance as they should help them to prepare for release. This includes making appropriate referrals to relevant housing providers if they are unable to return home.

It is probably not going to be very easy to secure accommodation during the COVID-19 outbreak, as many housing providers offering temporary accommodation are unable to move existing tenants on. Following the government’s order to house all homeless people, local authorities and other homelessness services are working hard to source extra accommodation, but the demand is high.

If there are other friends or family members who may be able to offer accommodation even for the self-isolation period then this should be communicated with the probation officer or supervisor for consideration at the earliest opportunity.  Please note that all addresses will be subject to probation approval.

If your family member has nowhere to go and is rough sleeping, they should contact Street Link on 0300 500 0914 or via the Street Link app.

How do I claim benefits or Universal Credit now the job centres are closed?  

If you are being released from prison, you can find advice about claiming benefits in the document below.

Download benefits advice here

Before you apply for any benefits, it is a good idea to check your entitlement to find out which to apply for. You can do this and get an estimate of how much you’ll get by using the Entitled To benefits calculator.

Shelter have produced a guide about who can claim Universal Credit and how much you might get. If you decide to apply for Universal Credit, these are the steps you can take:

  • Apply online on GOV.UK
  • Contact Citizens Adviceif you need help with the online process.
  • Call the universal credit helpline on 0800 328 5644 if you:
  • can’t apply online
  • need a universal credit advance
  • can’t access your universal credit account once you’ve set it up

If you cannot wait 5 weeks for your first payment, you can apply for a universal credit advance. This must usually be repaid over the next year.

On March 19 2020, the Department for Work and Pensions announced that claimants will not need to attend Jobcentre Plus or medical assessments for at least the next three months. You can find up-to-date government guidance about claiming benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic here.

Will I need to attend Probation appointments upon release?

In most cases, people being supervised in the community are reporting to their offender manager remotely, by phone. If you have been released early, or temporarily, due to COVID-19, you should be contacted by your probation officer or supervisor within 48 hours of release. All prisoners leaving prison without a phone will be issued with one for the COVID-19 period, while these exceptional working practices are in place.

If you are classed as high risk, you may be visited at your home, although your offender manager will not enter your home but will conduct a ‘doorstep call’. HMPPS have produced this information sheet for those who are supervised by the National Probation Service.

If you are released on temporary licence (ROTL) for other reasons, e.g. because you are medically vulnerable, you should be given the telephone number of your probation officer.

I am self-employed. What financial support and benefits are available to me during COVID-19?

If you have to take time off work because you’re sick or self-isolating – or if you’ve lost all your income due to coronavirus – you might be entitled to claim benefits. Plus further help has been announced in the form of the new Self-employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS). You can find out if you are eligible and further details of the scheme here.

How do I access legal advice while in prison?

The Prisoner’s Advice Service is an independent charity providing information and representation to prisoners. Although their Outreach Clinics are currently suspended, their Advice Line is open on 020 7253 3323.

I am on remand pending trial. My trial date has been adjourned or I do not have a trial date yet. Can I apply for bail due to Covid-19?

You can make an application for bail, but be aware that the courts are experiencing a significant backlog at present. If you are particularly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19, this is likely to be stronger grounds for a bail application than simply because you are being held on remand.

I am being released early but have no bank account to receive benefits. What are my options?

The Payment Exception Service is a way for people who do not have a bank account to collect benefit or pension payments. The service replaces Simple Payment and is only available in very limited circumstances. For more details, please see here.

Please note that in order to use this service, you will need some form of ID. If you do not have any ID, contact your probation officer or supervisor if you have one. If not, you can call us on 0300 123 1999 and we can advise on your options.

If you want to open a card account but do not have ID, you may be able to open a Simple Limit account with Pockit. You can do this online, here. Simple Limit Accounts are issued to customers whose identity and address could not be automatically verified. Please note that charges apply for withdrawing cash from a UK ATM, PayPoint Loads and paying bills by direct debit (99p each time). For further details about Pockit accounts, please see the document below and have a read of their website.

Download Pockit details here

I am struggling to pay my utility bills. What support is available to me?

Most energy firms are putting in place new measures to help prepayment customers unable to top up during the coronavirus pandemic. There is information on the Money Saving Expert website about what each energy supplier is doing to support its prepayment customers during this period.

My employer expects me to attend work, but my Probation Officer says that I shouldn’t go. What should I do?

Try to find out why your probation officer or supervisor is advising this.

If you are a key worker, providing an essential service and you are not required to self-isolate, you should be able to attend work as usual.

If you are at very high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 because of an underlying health condition, or are required to self-isolate because you or a member of your household has displayed symptoms of COVID-19, you should notify your employer that you are unable to attend work for the relevant period.

If you have any problems or would like further advice, please contact us on 0300 123 1999.

The Independent Advisory on Deaths in Custody has launched a new COVID-19 information hub, which will be updated regularly with guidance and information on protecting the lives of people in custody.