Between the Lines

I was recently reminded of these 2005 autobiographical reflections on my experiences working in a project that housed former prisoners that I delivered to European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control’s conference in Belfast that year.  Not sure I would still agree with it all, but some interesting material that I thought worth re-sharing. I have avoided the temptation to edit or update (except for adding a few URL links) so please read as something written in 2005 

This paper was subsequently redrafted as my 2007 MA dissertation thesis Escaping the Perpetual Incarceration Machine: Lessons from Hargrave House.


Between the Lines: Some personal recollections of the Hargrave House Project and its role in enabling ex-prisoners to make the transition from prison to the community and an exploration of the potential for using its founders’ ideas today.

Between 1984 and 1990 I worked for Hargrave House Project, a voluntary organisation providing accommodation for homeless men and women on their release from prison. This paper looks at how Hargave facilitated its residents’ transition from prison to the community and evaluates the potential of the Hargrave model today.

Hargrave House Project

In 1974 Geoff Sugden an ex-prisoner involved in North London PROP[1], was joined by a young graduate supporter of PROP, Lib Skinner in setting up Hargrave House Project. Sugden and Skinner’s description of the establishment of Hargrave is set out in their book; “The Pro’s and the ex-Cons” (1977: 59) which proclaimed

…we do not want to see people in terms of “problems” – for this would imply that they needed treatment. Our object, on the contrary, was to provide them with accommodation, and the opportunity of becoming self sufficient, and of controlling their own lives…

Hargrave was set up to provide accommodation to women and men leaving prison. Its ethos was co-operative, decisions being taken wherever possible through consensus, it encouraged self help, the initial properties where largely made habitable by PROP members and supporters and most crucially its perception of those it housed was of equality, they were people who had been in prison and were homeless, they were not clients, patients, or inmates.

Although Sugden and Skinner only worked for the project for two years they established a clear ethos and confronted a number of the key issues the project would have to resolve. In particular they established early in the projects life that the accommodation was only temporary. It was not intended to be a home for life. This was important for two reasons. Firstly it avoided the temptation of running the project outside of society. It was not a place of escape where people could live lives on different terms from those available within the community. Hargrave from its earliest days was intended to be a stepping stone not a destination. Those who lived in it would soon have to move on. Secondly it limited the extent to which the project could be self-governing. Those who managed it, the staff and committee, would inevitably have a longer-term view of issues than the residents living in it.  These implications although inevitable were foreseen by Sugden and Skinner and responded to. In particular the impact of being temporary accommodation on the involvement of residents in the management of the scheme and the conflicting interests this would generate were acknowledged before they happened.

Hargrave House from its inception regarded itself as a community project and required its staff to not only manage the project but to be actively involved within the wider community. It did not seek to hide but to be visible and had the confidence to challenge government agencies. Hargrave responded to Probation Officers insistence in sending it confidential Social Enquiry Reports relating to potential residents by exposing this practice in the local press. This caused considerable tension between Hargrave and the Probation Service and may have contributed to delays in Hargrave obtaining Home Office funding, but even 10 years later when Probation Officers routinely dispatched this confidential information to other accommodation providers they rarely sent any to Hargrave House. There were also a number of occasions were conflict with their local council, Islington were resolved in the public domain rather than by negotiation behind closed doors. From its inception Hargrave refused to play by the rules of the establishment. But unlike other similar projects it also saw itself as existing within and being a part of its local community. Hargrave was always seeking to establish and develop alliances with other community groups and in particular groups representing the marginalized and excluded section of the community.

Hargrave House was a product of its time in that its ideology reflected the radicalism that emerged in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. It was very different to ex-prisoner accommodation projects already operating. Typical of the existing accommodation schemes was Norman House set up in 1955 by Merfyn Turner with generous funding by private charitable sources. Turner recorded the establishment of Norman House in his book “Safe Lodging: The Road to Norman House” (Turner 1961). As a conscientious objector Turner had experienced Prison during the Second World War. He had learnt from his own experience that “Prison hurts. It hurts different people in different ways and in varying degrees. But it always hurts.” (Page 14) and “Prison degrades” (Page 15). He viewed Norman House as an alternative to prison for its residents. It’s prime objective was the facilitation of its residents’ reintegration into Society. Turner perceived prisoners as lacking the skills “normal” people acquired through their families, the needs of homeless discharged prisoners are the needs of deprived children (page 299). His response to this view of ex-prisoners was a hostel that he ran like a family, with himself at its head, “the father”.

Although Turner had a very different perception of people who are homeless after leaving prison to that of Sugden and Skinner they shared in common a commitment to doing something. What is interesting is that in both their accounts is the extent to which their experiences of providing housing to people who were homeless on their release from prison reinforced their very different perceptions of former prisoners. Sugden and Skinner saw residents proving themselves capable of using the accommodation offered to create independent lives, whilst Turner witnessed the needs of inadequates being met by the family he had created.

My long experience of people who are homeless, living in a range of regimes, has highlighted a wonderful ability to adapt and reflect back the values of the institutions they live in. I therefore have no difficulty in reconciling the very different experiences of the two projects. People experiencing homelessness have only limited routes out of their predicament. They are aware of this and adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of the available routes to maximise their own chances of success.  Whilst the institution perceives successful completion of a route as a triumph for the institution, and failure as proof of the inadequacy of the “client”, the person experiencing the “service” focuses on surviving the process and finding the most effective way of securing housing.

Prison: The Pains inside

Prisons are peculiar institutions for the delivery of blame and pain (Christie 1978 Page 184)

In exploring the transition from prison to community I want to view the experience of imprisonment not only in terms of a single sentence. Prison is normally experienced as a repeated process In 1999 approximately two thirds of adult male prisoners were there for at least the second time (SEU 2002 page 13), it often starts during childhood {84% of 14-17 years leaving prison in 1997 were reconvicted within two years (SEU 2002 Page 155)} and involving a series of releases, often for short periods, followed by repeat imprisonment, further releases and yet further imprisonment. To understand this process we need to comprehend the experience or pains of imprisonment.

Although Prisons are not directly available for public viewing the reality has been well recorded by men and women who have experienced Britain’s Prisons (see for example Macartney 1936, Red Collar Man 1937,Henry 1954, Boyle 1977, PROP 1977, Carlen et al 1985, Padel and Stevenson 1988, Leech 1993, Jameson and Allison 1995, Maguire 2001, Wyner 2003) and Special Hospitals (Reeve 1983, Wallace 1986, Laing 1992).

This extensive first hand accounts of imprisonment shows clearly the unchanging reality of prison over the last century. W.F.R Macartney (1936: 241) writing in between the two world wars observed that

The brutality, the ceaseless nagging, the injustices, the foul food, and the wretched living conditions acted continuously upon the frayed nerves

were the causes of the Dartmoor mutiny in 1928. Mid way through the twentieth century Joan Henry (1954: 121) was to report:

All the time at Holloway I had been frightened … Even in the hospital … I recoiled from the screams in the night, and the naked misery in the eyes  … fear of madness and melancholia, … and a haunting fear of the future, in a life that saps initiative …

at a time when very few women were imprisoned. By the 1970’s when Hargrave was being set up Bill, an ex-prisoner described his experience of prison.

You don’t use your brain, everything you do you are told. You are treated like a pig, so you act like one. You hate them and they hate you (Quoted in Fitzgerald (1977) Page 75).

An experience reported time and time in autobiographical accounts with little variation over time. Those we imprison, of whatever gender, whatever class or whatever race seem to rapidly understand the reality of Prison. This continues to date with Ruth Wyner (2003: 5), the homeless charity worker stating clearly: “Punishment and pain: that was what it was all about” at the very start of her account of her imprisonment.

It is not an experience that prepares prisoners for a successful transition to living in the community after release. Prison reformers acknowledge these deficiencies but perceive them to be correctable. In the Prison Reform Trust 2001 Annual Report, its Director, Juliet Lyon, wrote “large overcrowded, under resources institutions do not work.” (Page 5 PRT 2001). The fact that there is no evidence that prisons have “reformed” their inmates when populations were far smaller, the number of inmates less or the institutions better resourced would suggest that routes to successful transition lies outside the prison walls.

The Community

Isolated from family, friends and society, degraded and embittered, offenders are unlikely to survive well in the society they confront when they emerge from prison (RAP 1972)

Hargrave House throughout its history operated almost exclusively within the Borough of Islington in North London. Key data from the 2001 census indicate Islington has a population of approximately 176,000 and covers an area of less than 15 square kilometres. (National Statistics 2005 (1)) It is the 6th most deprived local authority area in England (National Statistics 2005 (2)) Its population is 75% white with significant black and Asian communities. (National Statistics 2005 (1)) Over two thirds rent their home (36% Local Authority, 14% Housing Association and 16% private rented), average property prices were £291,000 and 80% of properties in the Borough are flats or maisonettes. (National Statistics 2005 (3)) Islington has a significantly lower proportion of children and old people than London or nationally. (National Statistics 2005 (1))

In 1979 the incoming Conservative Government adopted a monetarist economic policy that resulted in high levels of unemployment throughout the period 1984 to 1990. This disproportional impacted on inner city areas like Islington. This period also saw increased gentrification, with in particular, professional childless couples, moving into the area because of its close proximity to the City of London. Islington was predominately a poor deprived working class area mixed in with a significant minority of very affluent young middle class professionals.

Whatever the fantasies of prisoners, the reality of returning to the community is often a difficult one. Prisoners are often poorly equipped to operate within the community. 9 out of 10 left school at 16 or younger, 4 out of 5 have a writing ability of an 11 year old or younger. Over half the men and nearly three quarters of the women have no qualifications. 67% were unemployed on entering prison(Social Exclusion Unit 2002). They are a group who is likely to find it difficult getting employment and then when it is obtained to find that it is insecure and poorly paid. The fact they have a criminal record and have been in prison further impede their capacity to enter the job market or get good wages.

Prisoners also suffer from poor health. 7 out of ten suffer from two or more mental disorders. The majority have personality disorders, use drugs and drink dangerously. Eight out of ten smoke. One in twenty slept rough prior to imprisonment with a third of prisoners being homeless prior to their incarceration. (Social Exclusion Unit 2002)

The reality for most women and men leaving prison is that they re-enter a community where they will have serious problems finding anywhere to live, where they are likely to be unemployed or in poorly paid insecure employment, where they will face difficulties both with their poor mental and physical health and with accessing health services.  Many will have lost contact with families and friends and have to face this hostile environment without support.

Hargrave House’s residents throughout this period experienced high levels of unemployment. What employment that was available tended to be unskilled and short term. Often it was “cash in hand” meaning acceptance involved offending and risking a return to prison. When residents needed health services they found it difficult to access them. Primary health services were over stretched and normally reluctant to register new patients, particularly homeless ex-prisoners.

Hargrave House 1984 – 1990

I started working at Hargrave in February 1984 when it had been in existence for 10 years. It had been a transient decade with the Project having to relocate to new premises on a regular basis. A permanent home for Hargrave, two large terraced houses on the Holloway Road in North London, had been identified and was currently under construction. The project was operating out of 3 short life houses, properties purchased for renovation but waiting the necessary funding, dispersed across the borough of Islington. The properties were extremely run down and the accommodation very basic, single rooms furnished with donated or other second hand furniture, shared kitchens and bathrooms where plumbing provided a far more stimulating challenge than the books of account.

In 1984 a lively market existed for accommodating ex-offenders in North London. In addition to Hostels managed by the Probation Service there was Hargrave House, with its origins in the Prisoners Rights Movement, Stockdale House, a women’s hostel (Camp 1974) operated by the Griffins Society, an establishment charity whose Trustees were drawn from the great and good. Penrose Charity, a men’s hostel established by Mrs Rose, a Prison Visitor at Pentonville Prison, Norman House, established by Merfyn Turner, Second House providing accommodation for those “discharged” from “Norman House”, Third House run by Ian Thomson, who required his residents to obtain employment within a week of admission, SHOP, (Self Help Organisation for Ex-Prisoners), was established as a social action project by main grade probation staff, North West London Housing Association set up the Middlesex Probation Service, Kenton Road Co-operative, a housing project set up by Hargrave and managed by its members, Bagshott Two, a housing co-operative that broke away from Hargrave and led by ex prisoner and ex-Hargrave employee Willie Shilitoe as well as NACRO Housing in London, a government supported charity.

A voluntary committee managed Hargrave and in 1984 none of the members were ex-prisoners, its staff team did not include any ex-prisoners although ex-prisoners had worked for them in the intervening years including Chris Tchaikovsky, who subsequently founded Women in Prison. Committee Meetings were open to residents, two of whom were eligible to attend as voting residents representatives, but this opportunity was rarely taken up. The aspirations of allowing those who lived in the project to exercise control and leadership had largely been unrealised, a factor recognised early in the Projects development by Sugden and Skinner and perceived by them as an inevitable consequence of the project seeking to provided short term temporary accommodation. However the ethos of the Project reflected its origins and the values and analysis of its founders.

Hargrave House most significantly retained its focus on housing men or women who had been in prison. The residents were primarily men who had been imprisoned for significant periods; they included a number of “lifers” and men detained in one of the “Special Hospitals”.  By 1987 of Hargrave’s 4 staff two, Veron and Ray were ex-prisoners and Pat’s partner was serving a long prison sentence. The Committee was chaired by another ex-prisoner and included other ex-prisoners and partners of prisoners. Hargrave’s staff shared a common and highly critical view of the criminal justice system, The experiences of those that had been in prison were valued. We co-operated with the police but avoided colluding with them, avoided making moral judgements on the past or present criminal activity of residents except where they had a potential impact on the Project and other residents, and we gratefully accepted funding from the Home Office, the Department of the Environment, and the Greater London Council.

We had a simple perception of our role; we existed to provide accommodation for people leaving prison who would otherwise be homeless. Our role was not to impose control, not to judge, not to police, not to treat, not to reform. If this accommodation enabled a resident to make the transition between prison and living in the community, then that was a bonus. There was of course a great irony in this. We were at one level refusing to measure ourselves as a rehabilitative process but at the same time acutely aware of the fact that our model was in reality proving to be far more successful at rehabilitation than the projects established and funded to achieve this aim. Although Hargrave never had more than 18 bedrooms we were regularly rehousing 20-30 residents a year into local authority or housing association flats.

Hargrave had been established to respond to a need, the need for accommodation for ex-prisoners. Its staff were not social workers but housing workers, We provided an initial safe place directly on release from prison, and supplemented it with the provision of practical help. We achieved this by maintaining an excellent informal network that could identify employment opportunities and by assertively developing relationships with Islington Council and other providers of permanent housing. All this was delivered in an informal setting.  We consumed little paper, used the smallest room in the house for our office, forcing us to conduct much of our business in the near by Norfolk Arms, developed relationships of equality with residents, but on the key issues, a job and a home, we delivered.

To illustrate this two case studies.  We housed a young man who had been evicted by another project for repeatedly having a woman in his room. This struck us as a stupid reason to make someone homeless, but we soon had reports from other residents about his extremely attractive girlfriend. They were jealous. About a month after moving in, whilst paying his rent, he casually mentioned that he thought the staff should know that “his bird” was actually him. This disclosure of his cross dressing was being made out of courtesy. Yet at another Project he had felt unable to disclose this even at the cost of becoming homeless.

The second case is both more dramatic. I arrived at work to find I was the only member of staff. A resident had moved out the previous day and his room needed to be prepared for its new occupant. The room was a tip. It needed clearing and decorating. A boring and lonely job. In the room next door a resident had moved in some weeks previously, a polite nervous man with an unsuccessful career in armed robbery. He was my man. I knocked on his door, got no answer and knocked again. Eventually I got a response. Unprepared to fuck off I persisted. Eventually he agreed, for £10 in the hand, to help me paint the room.  We worked hard, talked about life, his hopes, his fears, politics, football, and did a half decent job of painting the room. The new resident arrived. His room was ready. I left the two residents talking.

Over a decade later the resident shared with me his rather more dramatic perspective of that day. He had come out of prison with high hopes. Like so many in prison he had endured the experienced by creating a fantasy future life. All he had to do was his time and then he would have the job, girlfriend, car, money and all the other ingredients of the good life. The fantasy became unsustainable when faced by the reality of life outside prison. He had reached a decision to kill himself. He was lying on his bed with the pills that would kill him lined up on his bedside table. My insistence on getting his help to paint a room had interrupted his plans; it had quite literally saved his life. All this I discovered years later in his flat, where he lives with his partner and two children. He drives a bus, hopefully with more success than he had as an armed robber, and remains friends with the man whose room we painted.


Actually I couldn’t give a toss about going back to prison…The deterrent for me is what I would lose if I went back inside (John Bowers (1991) Page 104).

The concept of “Crime” can be problematic. What is deemed crime is not determined by any evaluation of the harm done or indeed anything else objective (Christie 2004). Committing crimes has a different impact on the lives of different people. For some, in particular the powerful, crime can be highly profitable and carry little risk of any punitive response even if it is highly anti social and causes considerable damage. (see Pearce 1978, Slapper and Tombs 1999 and Ruggiero 2001). However for the clients of Hargrave House, ex-prisoners, homeless and working class, the impact of committing crime had been damaging to them and its continuance was effectively a recipe for further imprisonment. Desistance for them was a matter of survival not morality. Therefore whilst the process of successful community reintegration is not the same as desistance from lawbreaking for Hargrave’s residents there were significant overlaps.  The fact that so many of Hargrave’s residents reintegrated into the community and sustained this over time means that they were by and large desisting. It is important therefore to understand why people desist.

Shadd Maruna (2001) identified four explanations for desistance. Growing out of crime. “Aging is the only factor which emerges as significant in the reformative process” (Glueck and Glueck 1940 page 105). Secondly that offenders are “cured” by a treatment model delivered either within prisons or the community. (McGuire and Priestley 1985, Leach 1992) Thirdly that once someone obtains an enhanced state in society, be it a home, employment or relationship, which provides an incentive to go straight. Fourthly that punishment deters further offending (Wilson 1996), The Hargrave experience of our younger male residents (21 and under) was the most frustrating with most of them having more “time” in them. However other residents’ age did not appear to be particularly significant. Of those who arrived with us “cured” either through a religious experience in prison or a treatment model, there was a certain fragility. All their hopes were built on the foundation of a religious or therapeutic experience that almost inevitably was challenged by the reality of life outside. Whilst evidence has been provided for example that Grendon Underwood Prison, which operates as a therapeutic community reduces reconviction (see Genders and Player 1995 and Leech 1992). I found that former inmates emerged from Grendon fluent in the language of therapy giving them confidence in their “reformed” selves but in reality making a successful transition harder. In particular they found our informality and lack of imposed structure difficult to cope with.

Our experience was that Hargrave’s focus on establishing material stakes in society was the major gateway that enabled our residents to establish lives in the community and avoid returning to prison. As for deterrence my experience of listening to the men and women who lived at Hargrave did demonstrate that there were many people who had reflected on their past behaviour and its consequences. Many of them regretted the acts that lead to their imprisonment, others after long reflection, remained convinced of the rightness of their actions.  Many whilst not necessarily defending the individual act did not perceive it as worthy of shame. The sentiments of the former prisoner who said:

Who says it’s right that a man should have £1,000,000 and babies starve? The man with the million pounds of course. He doesn’t fucking care. So you go and rip the aerial off his flashy car. (Billy Quoted in Fitzgerald 1977)

were shared by many of our residents

There is a danger of misunderstanding the direction of causality in any relationship. It could be argued that those committed to going straight would of course be those most likely to find employment and obtain secure housing. However the motivation expressed by new residents at Hargrave to go straight or not return to prison were ones they were likely to have expressed on numerous occasions before. No one leaving prison seriously wants to return. But a significant proportion do. Our experience was that that this desire could be successful with remarkably little help. Hargrave housed people who often had long histories of repeat imprisonment or had served long sentences and most left the project to move into their own Local Authority or Housing Association general needs self contained flat. They got their own place at an affordable rent. It was something that they valued and this value inevitably impacted on their decision-making. This was often clear when they first furnished their new home. Time and time we heard comments such as “I don’t want anything nicked in here” or “Everything I put in here I am going to earn”. The expertise of our Resettlement Worker, Pat, in getting resettlement grants from the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS), sometime of over a thousand pounds, made these aspirations somewhat easier. Retaining their home inevitably made criminal activity less attractive. I can remember being shown a new flat by a man, who less than a year earlier had been released from 12 years in Broadmoor Special Hospital (and before that many years in various prisons). The value he placed on that flat could only be understood in the context of his history of confinement. He remains today 20 years later in his home.

I would like to make a specific observation on the women who lived at Hargrave. Throughout the projects history it was mixed with both men and women resident. We did however have concerns about this model and from 1986 women were housed in a separate part of the building. In 1998 we obtained funding for a separate women’s scheme that opened after Hargrave merged with Penrose in 1990 and became part of a separate women’s housing project. Women shared many of the challenges faced by male residents but also faced additional issues, primarily their relationships with men and the fact they were often seeking to re-establish contact with children. It was sadly not uncommon for a woman resident to be moved onto her own flat and subsequently have a man move in, take effective control of the space and abuse our former resident either physically or by “requiring” her to engage in criminal activity for his benefit. To illustrate how significant a factor this was the first thing we, as staff, wanted to know about a new woman resident was her sexuality, if she was a lesbian, we couldn’t help the inevitable collective sigh of relief.

Devlin and Turner (1999) interviewed 23 former offenders who were now “going straight”. They identified from these interviews a number of common factors affecting their interviewees’ decision to stop committing crimes. These were; “a compelling one-off experience”; “a personal relationship; “discovery of a creative impulse”; “a religious base”; “sense of putting something back”; a replacement for an addiction; an ability “to distance themselves from associates”; “having ‘tired of crime”; and having “acquired something to lose.” (Pages 10-12)

The British Government’s Social Exclusion Unit identified nine key factors they believed influenced re-offending by ex-prisoners. These were “education; employment; drug and alcohol misuse; mental and physical health; attitudes and self control; institutionalisation and life-skills; housing; financial support and debt; and family networks” (SEU 2002 Page 6)

Devlin and Turner and the SEU’s factors for desistance and re-offending include both personal and social factors. It is interesting to review these and reflect on the likely impact of prison on these factors. It is clear that prison acts in a negative way, diminishing the desistance factors and enhancing the re-offending factors. As George Jackson (1971) observed whilst inside his prison cell, prisoners are “sent out of the prison more damaged physically and mentally than when they entered” (Page 49) The transition from prison to community is not dependant on the individual defective being “cured” but on a variety of other external factors which are as much about the society they seek to re-enter as about the individual. To use a simple example, a black convict on her release is likely to experience racism that will hinder her successfully completing the transition from prison to the community. Is the cause of this her being black? Or is the cause of this societies racism?

Alan Reeve (1983) has identified a “dialectic between personal and social responsibility” (Page 102). Crime and deviancy cannot be explained solely by a defect or inadequacy within the person committing it but requires an understanding of the social context and that person’s relationships to others. Our formal focus was on the social factors, we resolved problems with welfare benefits, advocated for clients in their interaction with officialdom, and we were exceptionally good at accessing them secure affordable good quality long-term accommodation. But we were clear our role was not to rehabilitate or treat our residents. However on reflection I believe we may have played, unwillingly and unknowingly, an important role in resident’s psychological transition from prisoner to community member.

Maruna (2001) reports the findings of the Liverpool Desistance Study that sought to psychologically compare two groups of ex-convicts, one group who was going straight and the other who remained actively involved in lawbreaking. Whilst the behaviour of the two groups had diverged Maruna found this did not reflect a change is values. The significant difference between the two groups was their attitude to their past lawbreaking. Those who were continuing to offend perceived their law breaking as evidence of deficiencies within themselves; they were bad people. Those who had changed took a very different view of their past behaviour, perceiving it to be more a result of external factors, they had been victims of circumstance.  The key difference was in the personal narratives. As Maruna observes

Going straight, according to the interviewees, is in no way about accepting defeat. Desistance was uniformly described as an active, rewarding, and even defiant process (Page 154).

Within Hargrave there was collusion by staff with residents in the editing of their personal narratives. I can recall on numerous occasions informally discussing a range of lawbreaking. These discussions were non judgemental with staff and residents sharing a cynical and selective attitude to convictions. We understood the law was not impartial, that a conviction did not necessarily imply that the person had committed the crime, that often, in context, peoples “crimes” made sense, that sentences were often disproportionate and that some crimes were legitimate acts. . These attitudes meant that within individual interactions we could listen to residents’ stories both without any requirement to make judgements and more significantly with a capacity to collude with the “making good” of their stories. We were, without realising it, allowing them to place their past behaviour within a context which often lessened and sometimes completely removed their personal responsibility. By backing up these informal collusions with the delivery of substantive stakes in society, a job, a flat and an ongoing source of support and help we enabled them to change the context of their lives and thereby further add to the distance between the acts which had resulted in their imprisonment and their contemporary selves.

We were not glorifying criminality or absolving ourselves of moral judgements. Hargrave and her staff knew how vulnerable we were, between the lines, and how careful we had to be in our interactions with the state. We valued accountability for public money, accepted the reality of society and its laws as they impacted on us, and sought positive relationships with local authorities, national government, prisons, probation and other voluntary groups. But we were not our resident’s moral guardians and although we co-operated with the agents of social control we did not ourselves seek any control beyond what was appropriate for a landlord.

What was special about Hargrave?

Rereading Geoff Sugden and Lib Skinner’s Book for the first time in twenty years I am struck by how clearly they had set out the ingredients for a successful and effective housing service for people who are homeless on their release from prison. From my experience of Hargrave from 1984 to 1990 I can identify six key characteristics of the model described by Sugden and Skinner (1977) that were critical in Hargrave’s success. These are:

1. Independent but Accountable

Hargrave House valued its independence and was prepared to act on it. Community Projects are not part of the state and should fight to retain the right to be publicly critical of national and local government. However community groups like Hargrave House are often providing valuable services that should legitimately be funded by the state. Hargrave promoted the idea of accountability and welcomed it in practise recognising the funders right to ensure their resources were properly used. In 2005 I regret to observe that their remains accommodation schemes for ex-offenders managed by respectable crime prevention charities that are poorly managed, failing the offenders who live in them and represent poor value for money for the state. Whilst this may continue to be tolerated in the case of providers who are general compliant and complicit with the state it is inevitable that organisations that maintain their independence and use this to raise issues about the failings and inadequacies of parts of the state will be required to show that funds are properly accounted for and services are of a high quality.

2. Within the law but not an agent of social control

Hargrave was always clear that it had to exist within the law. It believed in campaigning as a way of achieving change but as Sudgen and Skinner (1977) observed “there was no point in calling for changes in legislation, if we accepted that laws could or should be broken” (Page 97). In particular a community organisation that was prepared to challenge the state and promote subversive ideas such as the rejection of the concept of the ex-prisoner as deficient was particularly vulnerable should it find itself outside the law. Hargrave was always aware that some powerful people would welcome its failure or closure.

At the same time it was essential for Hargrave to resist the opportunities for it to become incorporated as the state’s agent for the control of its residents. Hargrave whilst happy to co-operate with the Probation Service and the Police refused to become complicit with their social control functions. We didn’t, unlike other hostels, give lists of residents’ names to the police, when the police arrived to arrest someone we co-operated but we also observed, advocated for our residents where necessary and followed up illegal or unprofessional conduct by the police officers by complaints.

3. Focused not Cure all

Hargrave’s rejection of the idea of ex-prisoners being inadequate immature people requiring supervision or treatment enabled the project to focus on a far narrower agenda than other similar projects. Whilst Turner (1961) sought to provide a surrogate family, Sugden and Skinner focused on much simpler task of providing accommodation. Hargrave throughout its history continue to perceive its raison d’etre as being the provision of temporary housing. Although living at Hargrave was an experience that was positive for most residents and for many played a critical part in their successfully completing the transition from prison to community they were not participating in a “programme”. My own observation of many residential projects aimed at ex-prisoners, offenders, people with mental health problems or addictions is that many people access them for the accommodation they provide not their declared therapeutic aims.  There is a strong case for providing accommodation and treatment separately. I have come over very few examples of organisations running accommodation and therapeutic services that can do both well. (One notable exception being Hargrave House’s successor’s Penrose Housing Association’s Mentally Disordered Offenders Services). Clients in need of accommodation will often access inappropriate services and suffer the treatment as the cost of being housed. Accommodation should not normally be conditional on receiving treatment or other services.

4. Respectful and empowering

By rejecting the punitive approach to people who break the law and focusing on them as people who need specific services it is much easier to develop relationship based on respect. Prison for many who experience it involves being treated with contempt and being degraded and humiliated by prison staff (Macartney 1936, Henry 1954, Boyle 1977, Carlen et al 1985, Padel and Stevenson 1988, Leech 1993, Wyner 2003).  The pattern of abusive behaviour leads to many ex-prisoners having a negative attitude to authority and an expectation of conflict and poor treatment. Hargrave’s perception of its residents and consequent treatment of them was in dramatic contrast to their experiences whilst incarcerated.  This had a positive impact on individuals who arrived feeling the world was, without exception, against them. The respect with which they were treated undoubtedly had an impact on their behaviour and provided the possibility of a different relationship with society in general and those in authority in particular.

Ultimately successful transition to the community means doing things oneself. Temporary accommodation projects need to focus on enabling residents to function independently. Projects that do everything for their residents can create significant problems for those residents when they move on to independent housing. Hargrave focused on advocacy but always with the client’s consent and involvement. Phone calls about a resident where made in their presence and residents were encouraged to resolve issues with agencies themselves. Services that empower rather than infantilise users are both more successful and preferable ethically.

5. Use the organisation as an employer to assist transition.

One of the key characteristics of Hargrave throughout its history was its willingness to employ ex-prisoners. This provided both valuable skills and experience within the staff team and the opportunity for ex-prisoners to develop careers in the voluntary sector. This policy did lead to some naïve and problematic appointments but overall Hargrave benefited greatly from the skills and experiences of the ex-prisoners who worked for it. Many of the ex-prisoners employed developed successful careers in the voluntary and housing sectors, including Chris Tchaikovsky who went on to found Women in Prison.

6. Respecting users choices, even the choice to “fail”

Increasingly services for offenders and other socially excluded groups are becoming focused on meeting targets and achieving defined success rates. Whatever the motivation for this the inevitable response of most providers is to alter their selection criteria to maximise their “success” rates. This “cherry picking” leads to further exclusion for many people perceived as difficult. Significantly in practice this results in the exclusion of people who refuse to conform and those who resist “cures” and “treatments” and who articulate anti authoritarian attitudes.

Hargrave recognised that people must ultimately make their own choices and that there was a significant differences between what individuals articulated and how they actually behaved. It was clear that there were a number of people who would not change and who would persevere with their criminal careers irrespective of what type of services they were offered. However we were also aware that we, or indeed anyone, had no way of identifying these people in advance. We understood our limitations and provided real opportunities. But we also understood ultimately our residents had choices and the right to make these, even when it lead to what might be perceived as “failure”.

Analysis of today’s environment

We are entering a period that at first glance looks very bleak.  Prison is in, and “in” in a big way. The British Political establishment is relaxed about incarceration increasing beyond 100,000 citizens, (see Home Office 2005 for England and Wales only projections.) A dynamic exists between the British Public, the British Media and British Politicians that drives continued growth in punitive policies. The Media understands that sensational, fear generating stigmatisation of criminals, young people, Black and Asian communities, travellers and other assorted “undesirables” generate sales. Politicians have determined that votes are more easily to be gained through a crude popularist and punitive surrender to the agenda of the media rather than allowing themselves to be influenced by the considered views of civil servants, academics, practitioners or the penal lobby. The general public continue to appear to respond to this generated fear of crime in ways that don’t discourage the directions taken by both press and politicians. (see Ryan 2003, RCP 2003 and Ryan 2004) The blurring of the boundaries of the prison, through the merger of Prisons and Probation into a new single “National Offender Management Service” (Carter 2003) linked to the conversion of community penalties into community punishments or “Payback” (Guardian 2005) with the stated intention of making offenders punishments visible indicates an intention to extend the humiliation and pain of prison into the community.

There is also a developing a culture of managerialism. The New Labour Government appears by its actions to be implementing a crude, cynical, right wing policy of mass incarceration targeted at the poor, ethnic minorities, and the mentally ill (Murray 1997), but their public rhetoric talks about, “Corrections”. Considerable resources are being invested or redirected to the re-branding of both Prison and Community Punishment as “Corrections”. This move is at one level quite fantastic. It is an extreme example of triangulation (Hitchens 1999). Taking the mass incarceration of the new right and combining it with the old liberal aspiration of reforming the wicked to create what could be called “New Corrections”. “Corrections” a word carefully chosen to satisfy both the need to portray what is happening as punishment that will hurt and yet also offering the prospect of reform, a cure.

This environment will see an increased interest in alternatives to prison by the state. This may represent a genuine attempt to find viable alternatives or may be merely a cynical exercise to prove that alternatives don’t exist. It is likely that some “alternatives” will become in effect “additions” being used not to divert away from custody but to punish more effectively those who would otherwise have been sentenced to non custodial disposals. However for those of us with ethical and political objections to the prison and a sincere desire to create alternatives it represent an opportunity.

There remains a need to be critical of the prison and argue against the march towards mass incarceration with the inevitable human cost of such a policy, demonstrated so clearly by the American experience which Melossi and Lettiere (1998) have warned for urban African Americans ‘is approximating social if not biological genocide’ (p52). However we need to have confidence in real alternatives and seek as activists to promote them. Hargrave House demonstrated the capacity for a community project to provide a viable transition from the prison experience for hundreds of men and women. Hargrave “worked” on its own terms, providing accommodation for homeless people leaving prison. But it also “worked” under the criteria of the state in that residents made the transition by desisting from crime. Desisting not because they saw the error of their ways or because they were reformed but because they took an opportunity to get a stake in the community and to escape the destruction of mass imprisonment. An opportunity they were allowed to take on their own terms.

In conceptualising imprisonment as a repeated process rather than a single incidence we create a possibility of rethinking what we mean by alternatives to prison. Normally these are considered to be options available around the time that a court decides how to deal with a lawbreaker. They chose between Prison and an alternative. But I would argue projects like Hargrave are very much alternatives to prison. They provide an opportunity for an individual to break their own personal cycle of imprisonment, release, and further imprisonment. Because they are after Prison they are free to reject the punitive and controlling aspects required of alternative sentences within the current political climate.

One significant development in England over the last five years has been a new system of funding and regulation for accommodation services for special needs groups. This funding stream, “Supporting People” (Moore 2003), has brought together a number of historic funding sources for special needs housing including the main revenue grant for ex-offender housing, Probation Accommodation Scheme, as well as the Housing Corporation’s [2] SHMG (Supported Housing Management Grant) revenue grants and elements of the central government means tested welfare benefit, Housing benefit, that related to support. Whilst this had been intended as a way of rationalising existing funding streams and giving control to local authorities to ensure funding was distributed according to local need the inclusion of part of the Housing Benefit element effectively meant that providers had the opportunity to make substantial increases in the “support” element of their rent charges, particular those with all or most their clients on welfare benefits. These increases resulted in a programme initially estimated to cost £750 million within a year expanding to a £1.8 billion programme (Guardian 2004).

Supporting People places large budgets at the disposal of its commissioner boards that all include representatives of the Probation arm of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). For many Supporting People commissioning boards funding accommodation provision for offenders is deemed a high priority. It is likely that significant further accommodation provision for offenders will be commissioned over the next decade.

Other developments are also bring new focus on ex-prisoner accommodation, these include the development of Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) and Panels (MAPPP)(Home Office 2004). These are statutory frameworks, established in 2001 for inter agency community control of “dangerous” offenders. They include Police, Prisons, Probation and other agencies including voluntary sector, social services, health and housing authorities. In seeking to discharge their duty of managing risk the agencies and their individual representatives are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of appropriate accommodation. In addition the establishment of Criminal Justice Boards (CJB) bringing together the local Chief Officers of the Police Force, Crown Prosecution Service, Magistrates’ and Crown Courts, Youth Offending Teams, Probation and Prison Services. These are intended to develop an overview of criminal justice issues across their areas and there is evidence that addressing accommodation issues is becoming a priority (see for example ‘Minimising Risks for Communities: Housing for Offenders in Hertfordshire’ Conference – )

Could Hargrave happen today?

Hargrave House developed from PROP, and to a large extent was a product of the same forces that created PROP. In that sense it was a product of its time. However there are key aspects of Hargrave House that need to be explored in a contemporary context to ascertain the viability of their replication today.

Hargrave throughout its history had high levels of involvement of ex-prisoners. Whilst any project today led by ex-prisoners or with them having significant involvement in its management is likely to face both public and official opposition. However this was also true in 1974. There is no institutional bar to such an organisation.

Hargrave from its foundation also involved a range of professionals and supportive individuals who were not ex-prisoners. Whilst the cultures and ethos of agencies like the Probation Service have changed radically, there remains, often isolated, many professionals who would be supportive to an initiative based around self-help and empowerment.

Funding for ex-prisoner accommodation services is through the supporting people programme at far higher levels than was available in 1984. As Local Authorities in partnership with Health and Probation Services develop five-year strategies the needs of ex-prisoners and other needs groups are being explored in a way never previously attempted with clear evidence emerging of considerable unmet need, particular for drug users, problem drinkers and ex-prisoners.

Whilst in 1974 the normal model of an ex-prisoners housing scheme was a small local project, which if replicated was not by growth but by the creation of a new independent sister organisation (Turner 1961) in 2005 the normal model is a larger organisation operating a portfolio of projects. Turner’s Norman House still exists but as a Project of Stonham Housing Association, itself now a subsidiary of the Home Group which provides over 45,000 homes and employs over 3,000 staff. Hargrave itself joined forces with Penrose Charity in 1990, to create Penrose Housing Association which has subsequently incorporated a number of other local projects. However within the wider supported housing field small local projects continue to exist and often provide high quality services.

There is no evidence that small projects are inherently inefficient or unviable. Small organisations are in general more likely to have a better understanding of their service users needs and aspirations and if they can recruit and retain voluntary committee members with the time, commitment and necessary management skills and expertise they are capable of delivering effective good quality services. The demise of small organisation is often the result of committee fatigue rather than a result of service delivery issues.

One significant change is the growing culture of risk management and the tendency of voluntary sector organisations to collude far more directly with the control of their clients. Whilst undoubtedly this trend is driven by state agencies and their agenda my experience has been that the level of complicity of voluntary organisations is to a large extent undertaken willingly. Whilst a voluntary sector partner who resisted criminal justice agencies demands in terms of control would undoubtedly be challenged the removal of direct funding powers to local government Supporting People Commissioning Bodies would mitigate against the imposition of criminal justice agendas. Indeed some of the contractual requirements of supporting people, developing out of concepts such as “normalisation” (1992) developed in theory and practice with other clients groups provide strong support for resisting these demands and, at least in theory, place the practice of the voluntary sector groups most eager to collude with the control demands of criminal justice agency in preach of their contractual obligations under supporting people funding.

Lastly the bringing together of ex-prisoner accommodation schemes and other supported housing within a single contractual and regulatory framework with the consequent monitoring both of quality and performance opens up the possibility of a move away from statutory decisions being driven less by what decision makers are comfortable with and more about schemes performance. The ease with which 50 years ago Merfyn Turner obtained considerable funding to purchase and run Norman House was based on funders instinctive sympathy for and acceptance of his vision of prisoners as inadequate children whose interests were best served by developing a residential community seeking to replicate the civilising functions of the family. Most accommodation schemes have similarly been established because key decision makers have been comfortable at a philosophical level with the ideology behind the provision. Those projects whose ethos and assumptions have been more challenging to the world view of decision makers, like Hargrave House, have struggled to obtained funding. However many of the accommodation schemes have found their ideas have not been so successful in practice. Supporting People is likely over time to expose these failures in a way that has not previously happened.

Although the environment today is radically different from the environment in which Hargrave House was established in 1974 it is no more hostile. Indeed certain aspects, particularly associated with funding are significantly more favourable. The critical factor is Hargrave’s establishment was not time or place. It was the vision, commitment and drive of its founders. Sugden and Skinner, together with other supporters both inside and outside PROP made it happen. The key to something similar is an individual or group of people prepared to make something similar happen today.


In conclusion Hargrave House provided a route for many homeless former prisoners to make a successful transition from prison to the community. Its ability to achieve this was because unlike other projects that existed then and indeed projects which exist now it was not trying to cure or fix or rehabilitate. It did not think that was either necessary or desirable. Martinson (1974) may have concluded that “nothing works” in terms of rehabilitative programmes in correctional establishments but he never claimed that ex-prisoners could never make the transition back into the community or indeed that they could never desist. Three years after Martinson laid down his challenged, unnoticed by criminologists, Sugden and Skinner responded:

more encouragement to refuse professional help, and to decide what was best for themselves, would be of great benefit to most people, and to their relationship with society (page 117).

We know that most ex-prisoners eventually desist from crime, but we also know that for many this is a long process. By its focus on the infliction of pain and its perception of the offender as a defective person in need of a cure the criminal justice system is promoting recidivism. The natural trend towards desistance is being delayed by criminal justice interventions. The experience of the Hargrave House Project provides strong evidence of ex-prisoners successfully making the transition from prison to community and that practical services based around housing and employment delivered in a manner that valued and respected clients were critical to many of the ex-prisoners successfully completing this transition. For anyone designing an accommodation service for ex-prisoners that wants to maximise the residents chance of successfully making the transition from prison to community Hargrave’s ethos and philosophy offer a sound foundation.

John Moore

John Moore worked as a Project Worker at Hargrave House Project from 1984 to 1986 and was the Project Co-ordinator from 1986 to 1990. Following the merger of Hargrave with Penrose Charity in 1990 he was appointed as Penrose Housing Association’s first Director a post he held until 2000. He currently ( i.e. in 2005) works as a consultant and has been involved in emergency accommodation for the homeless, developing services for women escaping prostitution and developing strategies for voluntary sector organisations. He is trying (with limited success) to establish a number of initiatives opposing prison and developing alternatives.


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[1] PROP (Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners) was a prisoner led organisation that sought to represent and organise Prisoners. (Fitzgerald 1977).

[2] The Housing Corporation is a government body that regulates Registered Social Landlords (previously known as Housing Associations) and provides capital grants towards the cost of developing shared ownership and rented housing. Until Supporting People it was one of the main sources of revenue funding for special needs housing.

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