What research and evaluation activities take place in the Work Behind Bars project? What is their goal?
We try to monitor and confirm the quality of the implementation of the entire project. We want to determine which of its activities work well and which do not. At the same time, we are looking for what method and which parts of case management are most effective for the target group of the project – i.e., people with addiction in prison. We want to present the outputs to the general and professional public, so that everyone can get a detailed picture of what happened in the project and when.
In the research part of the project, you often observe how case managers feel about their work with clients in prisons. Was that the goal of the research from the beginning?
We assumed that the project activities would be a certain burden for prison staff, case managers and clients. At the same time, there were also factors that we had not anticipated in advance, which increased the burden even more. On the part of the prison staff, we anticipated overload, which has been present there for a long time. On the part of organizations working with the case management method, we didn’t know much in advance. The burden on their side is mainly caused by structural problems and the difficulty of providing for clients after leaving prison in basic areas such as housing, employment, etc.
What does the creation of an evaluation report look like? What is the basis for it, and how long does it take to prepare one report?
A total of three evaluation reports will be produced during the project. The first one was published last August, and we published the second one a few days ago. We would like to have the final evaluation report ready next March. It will summarize the outputs of the entire project. The creation of the report is based on the evaluation plan, which is the basic timetable of what we will do in the field of research and project evaluation. First, I always conduct interviews with the team members who manage the project, as well as with the case managers who visit clients in prisons and accompany them after they leave. The second set of interviews consists of those with the staff of the prisons involved in the project. The third set of interviews will be with released persons who have undergone case management – we will conduct them for the first time for the final report. The second source of data are focus groups with the team managing the project as well as case managers. There we verify what has been said in previous interviews. The third source of data is the mandatory indicators that we have to monitor in the project and the data from the needs questionnaire that is filled in by clients entering the project. Thanks to the questionnaire data, we monitor how clients’ needs evolve and change during their cooperation with case managers. These numbers serve more as a support for the previous topics. The creation of one evaluation report usually takes six to seven months.
The second evaluation report of the project has been published recently. In addition to basic information on the number of clients involved in the project, it also contains a section that maps in detail the risks and limits of case management in prisons. What are the main ones?
The structural problems that we have been facing in the Czech Republic for a long time resonated strongly in this report. Housing is the biggest such problem. Its inaccessibility already affects the non-marginalized part of the Czech population. The marginalized ones are even worse off. People with addictions and a prison record that we work with in the project are often the last of the last in this regard. It is really very difficult for them to find housing. In the past, I often encountered the fact that those who had been released from prison did not have enough money for housing and that the problem was more of a financial nature. Now we are encountering the fact that people have money after their release, but they still do not have the opportunity to obtain housing in many places.
A very strong paradox is cited in the report — people serving prison sentences are preparing to return to society, but then they are stepping into the environment of rooming houses and low-quality housing that is completely inappropriate for returning and rehabilitating. On the contrary, this environment contains a number of phenomena that can lead to those released soon returning to prison…
I am reminded of one of the interviews from another piece of research where a woman who went through a specialized unit in a prison said, “In prison, they put rose-coloured glasses on us. They said that if we made an effort, everything would go very well and easily after our release.” Then she returned to an environment where a lot of things didn’t work, and she found out that it would be like that, no matter how hard she tried. Her frustration multiplied, and since then, she has trusted almost nothing and no one except for the organization that started working with her after her release and helped her. She had that trust there. So, it’s really important to support people who have served their sentences.
When we look at the area of employment, it is evidently not that work is unobtainable for people who have served their sentences. Rather, is it a question of what types of work under what working conditions are most often available to them?
Many of the rooming houses that people are sent to after their release are often linked to employment. At first sight, it seems like a great thing that it addresses two needs in one service. On closer inspection, however, we find that the environment of rooming houses and low-paid jobs in assembly plants and sweatshops are not at all suitable for people with experience with drug use. These are places where drugs are readily available and very common. Some research shows that the managers of rooming houses provide the residents with alcohol and in some cases, with other drugs. Employees in these positions often use alcohol to calm down or, conversely, stimulants for higher performance, which is required of them on the job. In my opinion, this environment is like a ticket back to serving a prison sentence.
Is there any other area of structural problems?
We must certainly not forget indebtedness and trafficking in poverty in general. It can be solved by debt counselling, but this is not available in some regions. Without work to remove the debts of those who have been released from prison, their employment is often almost useless. Most of the money they earn goes only to repay debts and mounting penalties. In many regions, other social services are also not very accessible. It is also specific for people after release that they have lower resilience, i.e., the degree of what they can bear, than the general population. They fall apart from a number of smaller things, such as the inability to choose what to buy in the store… Without adequate support and satisfaction of needs, they will collapse much more often and more quickly. However, the low level of resilience is quite understandable. I would probably be in a similar situation after several years in prison. In many areas of the Czech Republic, residential services for the treatment of people with addiction are also poorly available. Some clients – also due to the unavailability of housing – sometimes use them as a form of housing. This takes away places that are then unavailable to others who need them.
A frequently cited limit is the unclear and unpredictable rules of the conditional release of prisoners. How does this affect the work of case managers, and what could change in this regard?
Parole is problematic for our work in the project because it introduces a chaotic element. Inmates who apply for parole never know when it will happen until the last minute. These people undergo long-term work in prison, sometimes for three to four months or longer to prepare for release. Some are not released by the parole board. At the same time, no one usually knows much in advance about what the judge will decide. For us, this means that work done over several months is unsuccessful in relation to its goal – to get the person out of prison – and it has a huge impact on the mental health of the clients. The possibility of release is usually the centrepiece of their life in prison. If it doesn’t work out, their world collapses, and it demotivates them greatly. It is usually very challenging to continue to work with them and motivate them to prepare for another possible release. The second part of the problem with parole is the moment of release itself. It tends to be chaotic in that it is not clear when the release will actually take place. The approximate date of release is known, but the exact hour is not known. Each prison has a different release process. People who have been approved for release but are still held can become detached, saying goodbye to their fellow prisoners. A possible appeal by the public prosecutor is also awaited, as they can appeal up to three days after the court’s decision. These people can be released on parole, but they still live in a certain vacuum, where everything can change from one day to the next. This is challenging for case managers, who ideally need to come directly to the prison to pick up the released person and start working with them in the first hours after release. However, they often do not know exactly when to arrive in front of the prison and cannot block out the whole working day to do so. Sometimes they get a call from prison, but sometimes they don’t. Those being released do not always have a phone with sufficient credit. At the same time, many studies show that establishing cooperation immediately after release is crucial for success. I myself have often imagined what a shock it would be for me to climb out of a cage into an open space, to suddenly have freedom and know or not know what to do with it.
Another limitation that has been mentioned is the return of clients to other places in the country after their release and the associated need to hand them over to other organizations and services. How does it work, and what makes it challenging?
Handover is generally quite a fundamental thing in social services and social work. A confidential relationship is established between social workers and clients on which the cooperation is based. Any handover of clients disrupts this relationship, and a relationship must be rebuilt. This in itself is often complicated. Clients have to retell their story, which can be retraumatizing. Handovers between organizations in different areas, often even regions, are even more challenging. Sometimes clients are released in the Karlovy Vary Region, and they return to the Moravian-Silesian Region. The handover takes place practically across the entire country. Of course, the ideal would be for the staff of one organization to take the client to the other, to get to know each other, and to exchange contacts. However, all-day trips with one client are usually not within the capacities of organizations. We rely on the client making the journey alone, which can be risky for a successful handover.
How is it decided which prison a prisoner will be assigned to?
There are several keys. One is so-called regionalism, by which they try to place prisoners in a given region so that contact with family is available. There are also prisons and regions where regionalism is not observed. In some cases, prisoners are placed in prisons according to their sentence. Different prisons have different levels of security, so some can provide for people with more serious crimes. Some people may have court-ordered treatment, and they may go to prisons with specific sections for that treatment. There are also prisons that have screening sections where basic monitoring and screening of their needs are done. After the evaluation, they can decide whether to keep the inmate or send them elsewhere.
When placing prisoners in prisons, does their possible addiction play a role if it is known at the point of entry?
It certainly does in a number of prisons. Addiction is often seen as a negative element that will very likely mean more challenging work with the prisoner. Some prisons try to keep the less “challenging” ones when redistributing prisoners. Today, however, seventy to eighty percent of the prison population struggles with various types of addiction. In addition, according to research, the prison system accumulates a population of so-called problem users, i.e., people who have been using various mixes of drugs intensively for a long time and are struggling with severe addiction.
The difficulty of working with these clients and this method is also pointed out in the evaluation report by the case managers from selected organizations involved in the project. What makes their work so demanding, and how do the aforementioned structural problems with unaffordable housing or the demanding employment of clients make it even more difficult for them?
I can use the example of one case manager who said that when she is looking for housing for a client, she often sits on the phone for half a day, calling rooming houses, one after another. It’s very time-consuming and, at the same time, frustrating when people from those facilities tell her so many times that they don’t have a place. One of the case managers described how he used to go to rooming houses with a client, which rejected them because of his Romani origin. The frustration of case managers and the fatigue associated with their work is really increasing in the long term. Thanks to this, the demands of the profession are both physical and mental.
After two evaluation reports, is it possible to evaluate what their results say so far about case management as a method and its success in working with these clients?
First of all, it is necessary to say that case management is a pretty broad term. It is a way of working with a client that can be done in different ways. One way is that the worker can really be a manager and provide the client with various follow-up services at different organizations, put together contacts, connect the client to them, and create a support network for the person. The second way is more about micromanagement, where the worker works with the client more, discusses leisure time areas with them, accompanies them to different places. We see different approaches in both of these directions for individual organizations in the project. It turns out that case management is a good way of working, in that it fits well with the complexity of the needs of released people with addiction. They often face a wide range of problems and needs. From poor housing, through debts and foreclosures, drug use, to deteriorated mental and physical health… At the same time, they usually need to deal with problems and needs all at once, and not one by one. In the past, these issues were often solved one by one. However, it turns out that this procedure is quite ineffective. For example, if you get someone a job and you don’t deal with their debts at that moment, most of their money earned will still go to the bailiff. Such interconnected social work increases the chances of a successful return and of the released person remaining outside prison for the rest of his or her life.