Housing – Going into prison and preparing for release

Top tips

  • Hang on to your home if you have one before going into prison if at all possible – it can be pretty hard to find housing if you have nowhere to go when you come out
  • Tell staff at induction if you have nowhere to go when you come out – don’t hide this, as it’s probably making things much more difficult for you
  • You don’t have to tell your landlord if you have gone into prison, but this can be extremely useful
  • It is your responsibility to tell the prison that you are paying rent and need to do something about your tenancy while you are in prison
  • You need to tell the housing benefit office that you want to claim housing benefit (for up to 13 weeks for a short sentence, or up to 52 weeks on remand) and your address has changed
  • If you can’t pay the rent while you are in prison and want to end the tenancy, you will need to tell the landlord
  • People on remand may be able to claim benefits to cover mortgage interest, but not sentenced prisoners
  • Start paying off rent arrears when you get into prison, as it will help your case when you are looking for somewhere to live
  • Housing advice staff are there to help you – request an appointment with them at least 6 weeks before you are due to leave prison
  • Housing advisers or other people working in prisons can help with all the things that need doing to either make sure you keep your home, make sure you end a tenancy without getting into rent arrears, or plan to have somewhere to live when you come out

As soon as you go into prison

It is not necessary to tell your landlord that you are in prison, but it is a good idea, so that the landlord does not think you have moved out or abandoned the property. If the landlord thinks you have moved out, and has no way of contacting you, he or she may start eviction proceedings without you knowing.

The prison should do a housing needs assessment within 4 days of the person going into prison. You will need to tell the person doing it:

  • Whether you have a home where you need to keep paying rent (or the mortgage), so that you have a home to come out to
  • The address of the home you were living in before you came into prison
  • Who you rent it from, or if you own it, who you pay mortgage payments to
  • Whether there is anyone else living there who could pay the rent or mortgage – for example your partner, a son or daughter or other family member, or a lodger or sub-tenant
  • If you do not think you will have anywhere to live when you come out
  • Personal details such as National Insurance number and any other names you might have used in the past

If you do not think you will have anywhere to live when you come out of prison, start the action when you go into prison. There are two important things to do right at the start of the sentence:

1. Tell the person who fills in the Housing Needs Assessment at induction that you will probably have nowhere to go when you leave prison. This should mean that someone from a housing advice service that runs in the prison gets in touch with you before you are due for release, to offer help to find somewhere to live.

2. Get your name on the council waiting list for the area you want to live in. The advantage of this is that if there are problems with your application, you’ll find out in good time, and can do something about the problems

  • Rent arrears: If there are rent arrears, start paying off the rent arrears whilst you are in prison
  • Poor behaviour as a tenant in the past: Write to the council or housing association to tell them about work you have been doing in prison to learn how to be a good tenant. This might be a course called something like “Trusted Tenant” or “Practical Housing Units” or “Good Tenant training”, or you could include work you might have been doing as a peer mentor within the housing advice service.

Keeping your tenancy

If you have a home of your own when you go into prison, it is important to try to hang on to it so you have a home to go to when you come out. This means that you need to make sure the rent is paid for the time that you in prison. You are treated as though you are away from home temporarily, as long as you intend to return to your home.

Whether you can get benefit to pay the rent depends on how long you are going to be in custody, and who else is living in the property.

Benefits

If you are a housing association or private tenant who is facing a prison sentence or a period on remand, then there are some important issues that you need to consider regarding your tenancy and any housing benefit claim that you have.

Few problems should arise if you hold your tenancy with another person. If your housing benefit claim ends due to the length of your sentence (see below), the other joint tenant can become the claimant (depending upon their eligibility), if they are not already so. You would need to inform your landlord and the housing benefits department about this and any other change in circumstances. If you hold the tenancy in your name alone, you can continue to claim housing benefit for a certain period of time depending upon the nature and duration of your detention (see below)

People on remand

Anyone going into prison on remand can usually get Housing Benefit to pay for their home for up to 52 weeks (1 year), as long as:

  • They are expected to pay rent for their home and were on benefit just before going into prison
  • They are not expected to be in prison on remand for longer than 52 weeks
  • There is no-one else in the home who could claim Housing Benefit to pay the rent (someone else who usually lives there and is not a sub-tenant)
  • The person intends to go back to that home when they leave prison

This will not happen automatically. The housing benefit office needs to be sent a change of address form. This is called the Notification of remand in custody form (HCTB6) and it needs to be sent to the local council’s housing benefit office within 14 days of going into custody. The form tells the housing benefit office that you are in prison, intend to return to your home on release, and do not have any income whilst you are in prison. The council has discretionary powers to extend this period in exceptional circumstances. If you then receive a sentence for a period which takes you over the limit for eligibility for housing benefit (see below) your housing benefit entitlement will cease on the date you are sentenced.

Sentenced people

Anyone going into prison for less than 13 weeks can usually claim housing benefit while they are in prison, as long as:

  • They are expected to pay rent for their home and were getting Housing Benefit just before going into prison
  • They are not expected to be in prison for longer than 13 weeks (so it could be sentence of just under 26 weeks)
  • There is no-one else in the home who could claim housing benefit to pay the rent (someone else who usually lives there and is not a sub-tenant)
  • The person intends to go back to that home when they leave prison

A form must be filled in to let the Housing Benefit office know that you have changed your address. This is the Change of status/custodial sentence (HCTB7) form, which is used when someone goes into prison for the first time. It can also be used for someone who was on remand just before but now has a sentence of less than 26 weeks, so their status is different. It should be sent to the housing benefit office within 14 days (at most) of receiving the sentence. The form tells the housing benefit office that you are in prison, intend to return to your home on release, and do not have any income whilst you are in prison.

For people with a sentence of less than 12 months in prison, if they qualify for Home Detention Curfew (HDC), it is possible that they may be released within 13 weeks. HDC allows prisoners serving sentences, which would otherwise take them over the 13 week period to remain eligible for housing benefit. If entitled to HDC, a person with a sentence of up to 10 months could still keep their housing benefit claim provided that the time spent in prison is not extended, e.g. with a 10 month (40 week) sentence you serve 20 weeks, which is made up of 12 weeks in prison and then 8 weeks on HDC (i.e. at home), therefore keeping you within the 13 week limit away from home. The HCTB7 form must be filled in at the start of the sentence. When released on HDC, the form to fill in is the HCTB8 Release from Custody/Change of Circumstances.

This form should also be sent to the housing benefit office if there is any change in the home, for example that someone who was living there has moved out, or the tenancy has been ended by the landlord (using a court order).

Paying the rent while in prison if you were not on benefit before going in to prison

If you were not claiming housing benefit before you went into prison (for example, because you were working and earning too much to qualify), you may become entitled once you are in prison, for up to 52 weeks on remand or for a sentence of less than 26 weeks. You will need to write to the housing benefit office for a claim form, or you could ask for one from a prison housing adviser, or download one from the DWP website.

Deciding to give up your rented home

If you are sentenced to more than 26 weeks (6 months) in prison and have no income, and there is no-one else staying in your home who could pay the rent, you may have little choice but to end your tenancy. The alternative is to tell the landlord that you will repay the arrears when you are released, but this could be a lot of money to find:

  • If the rent for a one person flat is £70 a week, the amount owed after 6 months would be £1,820, and after a year would be £3,640
  • If the rent is £85 a week, the amount owed after 6 months would be £2,210 and after a year would be £4,420

Building up big rent arrears can stop people being able to be housed in the future, whether it is a council, housing association, or private tenancy.

The options are to:

  • Rent out the property – if the tenancy agreement allows that
  • Ask a family member to stay in the home and pay rent
  • End the tenancy

If the tenancy is to be ended, it is usually necessary to give 4 weeks’ notice to the landlord. If you are on housing benefit, it needs to be claimed for the notice period. This is usually possible if you have been claiming before going into prison. The form to fill in is HCTB8 Release from Custody/Change of Circumstances.

If the tenancy is ended, it may be possible to get a council or housing association landlord to agree to re-house you when you leave prison. You must ask for this agreement to be put in writing by the landlord.

If you have lost your tenancy for whatever reason and you have not arranged with the landlord to store or remove your furniture, the landlord when taking the property back will remove and dispose of the goods either immediately or after a short time in storage.

Keeping your owner-occupied home

The mortgage can be paid while in prison, if you are on remand for up to 52 weeks (1 year) or on bail. Income Support, Pension Credit or income-related Employment and Support Allowance should cover the interest on the mortgage, but not the capital. You must also tell the lender that you will not be able to pay the full amount due whilst in prison, and get them to agree to accept interest-only payments for a while.

There are no benefits to cover mortgage costs if you have been sentenced.

If you cannot pay the mortgage whilst in prison, the options are to rent out the home, or give up ownership of the property.

Remember that your gas, electric, water and council tax accounts require attention whilst you are away from home. Council tax benefit could remain payable depending upon the length of remand or sentence.

Planning to go back to the home after prison

If the house or flat is going to be kept for you to return to, some things have to be thought about, as well as whether the rent or mortgage can be paid:

  • Security: Does the property look as though someone is still living there? Is the place secure, so that it is not easy to break into? If a break-in does happen, can you call on someone to go and get repairs done, to make it secure again?
  • Insurance: Are belongings insured, in case of a break-in or damage?
  • Fuel and other bills: Is the fuel still switched on, and will you be able to pay for gas and electricity whilst you are in prison, or when you come out?
  • Does the property look as if it has been abandoned? It is a good idea to ask a friend or relative to call into the place, and check that the property is okay. It is also important that the post is sent on to you, so that any letters from the landlord (or lender) are dealt with quickly.

If you are likely to have nowhere to live when you leave prison

If you do not think you will have anywhere to live when you come out of prison, it’s important to tell someone this right at the start of the sentence. The main problems that people face are:

Rent arrears

Owing rent to a council or housing Association could mean that they refuse to let you go onto their list or to get an offer of a property. Paying off the arrears, even at the rate of £1 a week, could mean that the debt is cleared before you leave prison, or that the council or housing association see that you are serious about paying your rent and debts. Most councils and some housing associations will let someone go onto their list, and be offered a property at some point, if they have made a regular payment for at least 12 weeks. Most prisons have an arrangement for collecting £1 a week from earnings whilst in prison and paying off arrears outside the prison. Check if the prison will set this up. You might also need to check that it continues if you move between prisons.

A history of anti-social or criminal behaviour

Councils and housing associations will often refuse to house someone, or to let them go on their waiting list, if they have a history of anti-social behaviour or have been convicted for an offence which makes them seem a bad bet as a tenant – for example, dealing in drugs from their house, criminal damage, burglary in the local area, or making loud noise in the house. For some of these type of behaviour, it may be possible to show that you have changed your behaviour or learnt about what being a good tenant means through some of the things you have done during your prison sentence to reduce the possibility of re-offending. Some prisons run courses for prisoners on being a good tenant. If you have done one of these courses, a letter to the council or housing association about what you have learnt and how it will change your behaviour in the future would be a good idea.

There’s more information about what you can do to find somewhere to live on release in main housing section.

Get advice

The most important step to take is to make an appointment with someone who gives housing advice in the prison. There are more details here.

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