How difficult can it be?
One of the topmost thoughts in the minds of young people leaving prison is:
'How do I get money?'
Most are reliant on benefits and to claim those they need a bank account. We might all think that we are 'entitled' to a bank account, but the banks are not obliged to give you one. Yet, living without one is nigh on impossible.
Luke and his In2Out Mentor were getting his benefits sorted, arranging for them to be paid directly into his existing bank account. However, they ran into difficulties and a trip to the bank confirmed that his account had been frozen.
Sometimes young people are used as 'money mules', with other people using their bank accounts to move sums of money around. We think this is what happened to Luke.
Two, relatively small, deposits had been made that were flagged as 'fraudulent activity'. The flag is not just against the account but against Luke himself, which means no bank will allow him to open a new account for seven years - the duration of the flag against him. His Mentor suggested they go through a well-known credit agency to see if they could have the flag removed. But, because Luke was under 18, he couldn't open an account with the agency to see his credit rating, and so couldn't make the request.
After some more research, his Mentor found Luke could get a savings account with a credit union. The snag there was that Luke would have to go in person to withdraw money every time, not an ideal solution particularly if he was exploring going to college or starting employment.
Finally, Luke remembered he had another bank account that no one knew about, A visit to that bank with his ID gave him renewed access to it, a debit card and internet banking. Luke was able to go on to arrange for his benefits to be paid directly into it.
These things of our everyday lives generally just work in the background without too much problem for most of us. When issues arise, logging in online or maybe waiting in a call queue to speak to someone, can often get things sorted.
Yet for our participants, these arrangements are often complex and far from straightforward. Sometimes, they simply don't understand how bank accounts work and what they need to do. Often, the basic starting elements that give access to banks and benefits aren't in place. Participants don't have ID, a council tax bill or an NI number. They don't know where they will live when they leave prison, so don't have an address to start the process until a few days, at best, before they walk through the gate.
Many don't have a phone (and certainly not a tablet or computer) to access online websites or information. To address this, some young people end up taking out incredibly expensive phone contracts to get internet access and data allowances. These are expensive because participants don't have a credit record allowing them to access better deals with phone companies. So, they've already blown their budget and are running into debt before they've even started.
One of our focus areas in the mentoring support we offer is 'first steps'. In the early days of release, our Mentors help participants with getting ID (National Insurance numbers, passports and/or driving licences), setting up bank accounts and applying for benefits. They help them understand what is needed to get this done, go with them to the bank to deal with issues in person, and help them manage their frustration and impatience when the red tape seems to drag on.
Having started to provide basic mobile phones in our Leaving Custody Kits, it has become clear that, whilst useful for making and receiving calls in the early days, they are not enough for dealing with these kinds of issues. We are delighted to say that thanks to funding from Leeds Community Foundation, we are now looking to provide refurbished handsets with internet access, enabling participants to submit applications for banks, benefits and employment as well as find information and stay in touch.
We are grateful too, to Vodafone who, under their charities.connected initiative, have provided us with SIMS which give 20GB of data a month as well as free calls and texts for six months, and allow participants to take them forward after that time on a Pay As You Go basis.