Unlock ran a 9-year project, working with prisons and the banking industry, to better develop links in prisons. This came to an end in early 2014. Details of this work, and an impact report we produced, are available here.
Research suggests that between one third and one half of people in prison don’t have a bank account. Getting it sorted after release can be a humiliating experience, so people need to try to open a bank account before they leave prison. It’s a fundamental necessity of modern life and therefore resettlement. You need one just to claim JSA, and to receive wages from work you do.
Getting the banks to agree has been a slow process. In 2005, only one responded to Unlock’s call. Now, all the major banks are involved in opening accounts for people in prison. Each bank has ‘adopted’ a number of prisons, allowing over 100 prisons to support account applications using a standard ID template.
It’s not perfect. Prisons don’t always make it available to everyone and some prisons don’t make use the arrangement they have in place. It’s focused on basic bank accounts for people preparing for release. Most of the banks try to avoid ‘dormant’ accounts by excluding people who don’t have a release date.
This information will cover how you can go about applying to open a basic bank account before you are released.
Prisons and banks
There is no specific rule (either within prison or within the banking industry) that stops you from opening a bank account whilst you are in prison. Banks can open an account for you and rely on the prison’s security systems to ensure that only activity that the prison feels is appropriate is carried out on the account. Prison regulations set out a number of conditions that apply when opening a bank account:
- You will give the prison as your address.
- Authorised staff from the establishment will be able to inspect your financial records at any time.
- You will not be allowed to open or operate accounts that offer credit facilities.
- You will not be allowed to open or use store/credit cards, or other credit facilities.
- Cash, bank/building society books and cheques will not be allowed in your possession within the establishment.
The approach of banks
People in prison who apply to a local bank branch near to the prison often find the attitude of staff unhelpful. Although there are no specific rules that prevent the bank from opening an account for somebody in prison, they usually refuse. This can be for a variety of reasons; they may not have been trained to deal with applications from people in prison or they may think they are taking a risk. At a more senior level, some banks are worried about risking their profits and their image.
Unlock has been working hard to make banks aware of how important it is for people in prison to be able to open an account before release, and how difficult it is for people to actually do so. It is not an easy task, but most banks have taken notice. We’ve worked hard on behalf of people in prison to overcome the banks fears that have led to this discrimination. The arrangements that we have set up have shown that people who have previously been in prison can become excellent bank customers.
The approach of prisons
The Prison Service is officially supportive of people in prison opening bank accounts:
Prison staff should provide ‘reasonable support to enable [a person in prison] to open an account.’ National Offender Management Service, quoted in Inside Time in February 2008
‘If a prisoner […] acquires cash exceeding £500 they should be advised that it is in their interest to transfer the excess to an external account.’ Paragraph 3.2 of PSI 01/2012 – Manage Prisoner Finance. Note: There is no rule preventing people with less than £500 from opening an account
Basic bank accounts
In applying for an account before release, a basic bank account is the type of account that you should be looking at applying to open. We have separate information about what basic accounts offer. We also have separate information on savings and credit union accounts.
Applying for a basic bank account – the options
Option 1 – Specific prison/bank arrangement
Check to see if there is a specific banking arrangement running in your prison. These arrangements make the process of getting an account much simpler. They usually take account of the specific needs of people in prison; for example, they can help people who do not have any ID.
Make sure you try a few places in the prison, just because one person says there is no arrangement, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t one. Ask your personal officer if you have one, education, resettlement, and any relevant charities such as CAB. A list of currently active banking arrangements can be found at the end of this information.
If there is an arrangement, check whether you are eligible or not as some prioritise people who are near the end of their sentence. If you are eligible, ask to be added to the list.
Option 2 – Apply to the bank of your choice
If the prison doesn’t have a specific arrangement, or even if it does (and it’s just that you want to apply to a different bank), there are no rules to say that you can’t apply to other banks. The first step is to write to the banks that you wish to open an account with. Attitudes vary between branches, not just banks, so it is not possible to recommend any specific bank. Success seems to depend on how you go about it, whether you have money to put in, the types of ID you have, how persistent you are, and who receives the application.
It will help if you can get a list of banks that are local to your prison. Ask resettlement staff to help you get this. Check with prison staff to find out whether they have already built up a relationship with a specific branch nearby. Remember you can always change your bank at a later date.
Next, write a standard letter and send it to each bank. In your letter you might like to:
- Explain that you are in prison (there is no need to discuss your offences).
- Explain that you are about to be resettled back into the community.
- Give a rough estimate of your expected release date.
- Explain that that you need a bank account to secure employment and benefits after your release.
- Inform them that you are intending to use the account actively once released.
- Explain what types of ID you have (you can ask the prison to complete the template if you’re struggling with other forms of ID).
Be aware that, in our experience, letters from people are sometimes simply ignored by banks, so you will need to be persistent.
Option 3 – Wait until release
If there is no specific arrangement running in your prison, and you are close to release, you should consider spending your remaining time preparing to open one after release. Focus on getting together any ID that you have.
Existing prison banking arrangements have only allowed applications in sole name. There is currently no NOMS policy on joint applications, and these have not been proactively supported for a number of reasons; such as difficulties in governing financial transactions by people in prison, difficulties with two account holders with different addresses, and the possibility of two people in the same prison wanting to open a joint account together. Furthermore, banks have only allowed individual applications in order to reduce risk.
If you would like to open a joint account you should instead look to add a partner to your account after release. You should also be aware of the implications of a joint account and understand that money in the account can be spent without your permission.
List of prison basic banking arrangements
A list of prisons with specific basic banking arrangements are featured in a report we published in 2014 available on our main website.