Page last updated at 12:28 GMT, Wednesday, 25 May 2005 13:28 UK

'Unprepared' for life after jail

By Anna Browning
BBC News

A report from the Prison Reform Trust shows the number of offenders being returned to jail has more than trebled in the past five years.

One former inmate who thought he had put prison behind him talks about having to return to jail.

John Hirst
John Hirst faced a changed world when he was released

After 25 years as an inmate, 55-year-old John Hirst thought he had left life behind bars when he was freed from Rye Hill Prison in May 2004.

But three months later, in August, he was recalled to jail until he was released for the second time in November 2004.

Mr Hirst knew life outside would be challenging.

At the age of 28 he was convicted of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility, and given a life sentence.

Serving the 25 years was a lot easier than those three weeks

Fast-forward a quarter of a century and he faced a world of faxes, mobile phones and CD players - all new to him.

"It was like being an alien landing for the first time," he said, adding while in prison he had not been given help or advice on life on the outside.

This is something the government denies, saying rehabilitation and resettlement are cornerstones of its "new approach to offenders' management" as it reduces the risk of reoffending.

But, says Mr Hirst: "I wasn't prepared. I didn't know about meters for gas and electricity, about direct debits and charges. Things like that I just didn't have a clue about."

Back to jail

But, he says, he was even less prepared for the two police officers who came knocking on his hostel door one morning to take him back to the cells.

Mr Hirst says he asked why he was being taken back to jail but the police officers said he would be told back at the station - and at the station he was told he would be told at the prison.

It took three weeks for him to be told why he was recalled, he said.

The reasons included threatening and abusive behaviour - of which he claims they had no evidence; being abusive to the police - he claims the police "were harassing me and I just answered back"; and owing money to the hostel he was staying in.

"The recall was longer than the time I was out after 25 years and that hurt," he said.

"Serving the 25 years was a lot easier than those three weeks, because before at least I knew why I was there."

He was freed again in November 2004.

John Hirst
The recall lasted six months

Since then, he says, he feels like he is always looking over his shoulder, waiting for a knock on his door.

And while the first time around he had a job, he lost it after being recalled and has not been able to find another.

"The probation service used to be your friend, you would ring them up to get help," he said. "But now they are an extension of the prison force.

He says he understands why many fellow 'lifers' find life inside easier. There they have a roof over their head and meals are provided.

"I have managed to get by but it is because I am so strong-minded in that respect," he said.

Now he has his own house that he rents and is gradually teaching himself how to live with his new-found freedom.

Inquiry pledge

"I've been watching DIY programmes on how to do property up, so I have been able to paint my house and do odd repairs around the place.

"Come hell or high water I'm going to succeed."

A spokesman for the National Offender Management Service - which includes both the prison and probation service - said while they did not comment on any individual cases, any instances brought to their attention where recalled offenders were not told why they were back in prison would be investigated.

"We acknowledge in the past that this might have happened," he said.

"We don't have any examples ourselves, and if the Prison Reform Trust or anyone else has a possible case where this has happened they should contact us and we will investigate fully."

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