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Bank Accounts for People Leaving PRISON

A great number of individuals currently serving sentences or recently released don’t own a bank account. We explore the reasons for this, the impact this has on society and the ways you can secure your own bank account.

Leaving prison is a moment to celebrate for many individuals, but the process of getting back on your feet can be gruelling. Without the right structure in place, life on the outside can be incredibly challenging to say the least.

A lack of post-prison accommodation is often cited as one of the biggest obstacles for the newly-released. Some 15 per cent of men and 13 per cent of women leaving UK prisons list ‘no fixed abode’ as their accommodation status, according to Homeless Link.

Also, finding employment, repairing family relationships and coping with the impact of imprisonment on one’s own mental health are just some of the common difficulties many face. And it’s these very same hurdles that are said to contribute to the incredibly high rates of reoffending in the UK, with 48 per cent of adults reconvicted within one year of release, according to the Prison Reform Trust.

So what’s the solution? There’s no simple answer to this, but achieving financial stability as soon as possible is crucial. While this might not be an easy task, one of the first steps is obtaining something a great number of prisoners don't have: a bank account.

In this article, we explore why owning a bank account is so important for prison leavers, as well as the current problems surrounding this issue and how you can go about securing one for yourself. So if you’ve recently left prison, are still serving a sentence or know someone who could benefit from this content, please have a read. (And feel free to skip to the section most relevant to you.)

Why do I need a bank account?

A bank account is a safe and convenient way to manage your finances, but it is also important for a number of other reasons that are necessary for your life outside of prison.

Why is it hard to get a bank account after prison?

While there are no laws that prevent banks from opening an account for current prisoners or those who have already left, many will still refuse. This can be for a variety of reasons, including the fact that banks typically base their lending and customer policies on financial risk evaluations.

This means that if you are unemployed with a criminal record, a poor - or non-existent - credit history, and lack a residential address, you may naturally fall short of a bank’s eligibility criteria. Also, staff may not be trained to deal with applications from people in prison or the recently-released and individual branch attitudes to criminal records may be against you.

Applying for a bank account can also be confusing and figuring out what you need to do without guidance can even be embarrassing, especially if you have no prior knowledge of the financial system.

Fortunately, a growing number of banks now offer accounts to prisoners and the recently-released, and a number of specific schemes have been set up to support individuals during this process. And although it can still be a challenging task, it's not an impossible one and societal attitudes seem to be changing for the better.

Tip:

Ask someone for support. A family member, a friend or a dedicated prison support staff member may be able to offer you some useful guidance during this process.

Here are some basic steps you can follow

  • Find out if there is a bank account scheme at your prison
  • If not, learn whether any local banks have existing relationships with your prison
  • Find out what documents you will need when applying directly to individual banks.
  • Plan the application stage as far in advance as possible
  • Contact local banks and make enquiries as to whether their firm considers applications from almost or newly released individuals

Can I open a bank account while I'm in prison?

Technically, there is no reason that you cannot open an account while you are serving a prison sentence. This is often recommended by various charities that support people leaving prison. However, the success of this depends on the individual prison. Unless there is a specific program operating in your own prison, it can be difficult to open a bank account during your sentence.

If there is no such scheme and you are nearing your release date, it's a good idea to find out exactly what to prepare, so that you can open an account as soon as you are able to. This can include gathering the right forms and identification documents or making sure to ask a resettlement officer to provide you with a list of local branches that accept applications from people in prison or the recently-released.

Tip:

Ask your resettlement officer or adviser to provide you with a list of local branches that will accept applications from prison leavers.
Christopher Stacey,Co-Director at Unlock

We've worked to support prisons to set up bank account opening schemes in prisons across England and Wales because we know how important it is to have a bank account ready for when someone is released. We continue to push government and the prison service to make sure these arrangements are working well.

Steps for getting a bank account after prison

If you are forced to wait until you leave prison in order to apply directly to a bank, there are a number of things you can do to give yourself the best chance of being accepted.

  1. Ask your resettlement staff to provide you with a list of local banks and highlight any that might have an existing relationship with your prison
  2. Next, write to these banks and include the following info:

    - The fact that you are in prison and will be resettled back into the community soon

    - An estimated release date

    - Your interest in opening a bank account, in order to secure employment and benefits after your release

    - Your intention to use the account actively once released

    - The types of ID and document you have available to you

    - Ask what you will need to complete an application

  3. Gather any outstanding documents or information that you can. This might require you to ask the prison for ID or your family for documents they might be holding for you
  4. Visit your bank as soon as possible after you are released and complete your application directly with them

Tip:

Don’t be disheartened if you receive a negative reply from one bank. Attitudes can vary drastically between each branch. Make sure you send out a letter to as many banks as possible to increase your chances.

Does your prison have a scheme to help you open a bank account?

Your life can be made much simpler if there is an existing scheme set up to help inmates open a bank account. And you won’t know if it exists unless you ask!

As a first step, always make sure you ask as many people as possible about this. Fellow inmates, your resettlement officer or any other prison officials might be able to point you in the right direction.

Basic bank accounts will let you:

  • Deposit your wages, pension or benefits into one secure location
  • Pay in cheques for free
  • Withdraw money from a cash machine or Post Office
  • Pay your bills using direct debit

What kind of bank account can I get?

When applying for an account with a criminal record, a basic bank account is what you should typically be looking for. They are designed to provide the most essential features and can be useful if you have a low or no credit score, need a way to receive benefit or wages payments and pay bills.

Basic bank accounts will not offer you an overdraft or cheque book facilities, but opening one is a great first step, and a stepping stone to building or repairing your credit score. This will help you towards getting a regular account in the future which does provide them.

Resettlement Advice Team at, Nacro

You will require ID to open a bank account and for many other things on release from prison. If you don’t have ID, speak to our Resettlement Team as soon as you can and they will be able to help you see what ID you might be able to get.

Interested in the wider impact?

Without effective integration, prisoner leavers can soon face financial troubles, physical danger and may contribute to homelessness statistics in the worst cases. According to official statistics, the number of people estimated to be sleeping rough on a single night in Autumn 2018 was 4,677 and the Rough Sleeping in London Report (CHAIN) showed us that a third of people sleeping rough in London between 2015 and 2016 had once served time in prison.

The UK also has huge underlying debt problems and lack of financial stability for people who leave prison can lead to a number of debt-related problems that affect individuals and their families.

The truth is, prisons have the potential to provide the job market with many loyal and hard-working recruits. However, only 17 per cent of ‘ex-offenders’ are in PAYE (Pay as You Earn) work, a year after coming out of prison and only half of employers say they would even consider employing an ex-offender, according to the Ministry of Justice.

Rather than burdening national infrastructure, there’s no reason that prison leavers can’t become reliable and hardworking employees for any organisation. But for this to happen, the Government must first ensure that individuals should be prepared with the basic skills necessary to survive in the world of work, after prison.

Whether it’s setting them up with bank accounts or teaching them practical and usable skills, a great deal can still be done to improve the relationship between prison leavers and society as a whole.

There are an estimated 66,000 people who leave prison each year and failures of the rehabilitation process can have a huge impact on society as a whole – it has been estimated that reoffending by those released from custody costs the nation around £15 billion per year alone.

Christopher Stacey, Co-director at Unlock

If someone has left prison and needs a bank account, providing standard forms of identification can often be a challenge and so we'd normally suggest trying to open what is known as a basic bank account from a high-street bank because banks have the flexibility with basic bank accounts to accept things like a letter from a probation offer as identification.

Alternatives to bank accounts for prison leavers

A Post Office card account

If you are unable to open a basic bank account, a Post Office card account might be a good alternative for you. These accounts are specifically designed for receiving benefits as well as state pensions and tax credits and must be opened for you by your benefits provider. But remember, you cannot receive wages into this type of account.

It should be noted that the Government has decided to discontinue the provision of these accounts by November 2021 and, though they are still available, efforts are being made by various departments to phase them out.

Credit Union Current Account (CUCA)

You may be able to find a local credit union who will let you open an account with them. A Credit Union Current Account (or CUCA) will allow you to have benefits paid directly into it, as well as wages. It also typically offers direct debit, bill payment and standing order facilities. However, CUCAs normally come with a small weekly charge (£1-£2), so check the terms and conditions before committing.

Basic Bank Account

Post Office Account

Credit Union Current Account

Deposit Benefits

Yes

Yes

Yes

Deposit Wages

Yes

No

Yes

Direct Debit

Yes

No

Yes

Standing Order

Yes

No

Yes

Cheque Facilities

Yes

No

Yes

Resettlement Advice Team, Nacro

There are other options if you are not able to get a bank account, such as credit unions. If you are refused from one place don’t give up as there may still be options available.

Think positively

It is important to understand your value and rights once you leave prison. Upon release, you will gain full employment rights and although some people’s attitudes may be against you, perseverance will show that you can become a great benefit to society, as well as to those around you.

When it comes to approaching banks, remember that you are a potential customer for them. And once you move on to seeking employment, remember that you are a valuable resource for many businesses. It is true that many banks and businesses are still fearful about dealing with people who have spent time in prison, but as certain companies have shown us, such as Timpson and Virgin Trains, there is a shift in attitudes taking place across the UK.

Setting up your bank account is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to getting back on your feet, but it is an essential step that you should not underestimate. And finally, it is also a basic entitlement that you have, as much as any other member of society.

Tip:

Don't be afraid to ask for support. Consider whether certain charities or goverment bodies such as Unlock or Citizens Advice can offer you some advice or guidance. You may also have a probation officer or access to a resettlement scheme, so make sure you draw upon their knowledge - it's what they're there for.

Useful Resources

There are a number of organisations who provide useful information and advice about securing financial stability after prison. If you have time left on your sentence or you have recently been released, it would be well worth seeing what kind of support is available for you:

John Shepherd CEO,Trailblazers Mentoring

The transition from custody to community is often an extremely challenging one, especially for young offenders between 18-25 years of age. Many are released with little or no family support and because of their young age, they may not have any previous employment history, no bank account and no “infrastructure” that we all take for granted. It is in these early weeks and months that they need most support and guidance to set up the basic structure needed to build a legitimate and crime free life in a world which in many ways will have moved on considerably from before they entered custody.