By Theresa Gilson, Head of Service Delivery

Theresa joined Prisoners Abroad in 1998. She was integral to the formation of our resettlement unit and now manages the three strands of our service delivery - overseas, family and resettlement. For Local and Community History Month, she talks about how our community has evolved over the last 24 years.

I began working at Prisoners Abroad well over 20 years ago. I had completed my Social Work training where I focused on Criminal Justice and Probation and had also undertaken my first social work job for the Bethlem and Maudsley Trust in one of their drug rehabilitation units. Unfortunately, the unit closed and whilst looking for another job I came across the advert for Prisoners Abroad who needed a Resettlement Worker. The role seemed interesting and as it turned out gave me exactly what I was looking for – the chance to support people in their rehabilitation after prison with a real focus on their welfare and a fresh start.   

Theresa back in 2003

The role proved to be so much more than that. As the first Resettlement Worker in post there was no one to give me a handover, (though the overseas caseworkers had been doing ad hoc resettlement when people returned), so it was down to me to shape and develop the service as the needs demanded.  It was a very steep learning curve, realising that those who returned from prison overseas had no automatic rights to the usual housing and benefits support and no help from statutory services. No one understood their circumstances and very often they were treated as foreign nationals, which was understandable as many were beginning to return from the USA having lived there most of their lives and having American accents.  

The biggest challenge certainly came with the Habitual Residence Test for Welfare Benefits (whereby a person must prove their connections to this country, via residence of family members or owning property in the UK). Of course, our service users could prove none of this and often failed the test, meaning no access to Job Seekers Allowance, as it was called then, or any other benefit.  

The knock-on effect meant no access to housing, either in temporary hostels or more permanent rented accommodation, as it would not be paid for by the welfare system. A huge amount of my time was spent at benefit tribunals or persuading the DWP that a person was entitled to help. I can’t honestly say how we would have managed without some enlightened benefit officers in local offices and Islington Housing who supported claims and challenged their regulations to enable them to assist. Eventually, with lots of tenacity and hard work, we were able to get changes made to the regulations around the Habitual Residence Test which made a huge difference.

While many of those original challenges remain, things have also transformed. In our original office building, service user volunteers built and decorated a space that enabled me to see returnees in a confidential environment, but it wasn’t properly secure; when we moved offices within Islington from Roseberry Avenue to Fonthill Road, we were able to build a bespoke area for seeing returnees. Over the years, we have managed to build up many partnerships to help us support our service users, and the resettlement service now has a team of people who continue to increase the depth and breadth of the services we offer.

Prisoners Abroad's old office space

Transformation hasn’t just been about growth in numbers or physical moves but also changes in focus and Prisoners Abroad’s place in wider society. Not only have we needed to provide support and help to the individual, but we have also built our place in helping to protect the public, working alongside other agencies to ensure that those with serious convictions are monitored and supported appropriately.  

I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to still be part of an organisation that achieves so much around the world and at home in the UK. I am now Head of Service Delivery, overseeing our resettlement, overseas, and family work, but every day is still different and brings new challenges. It’s an amazing privilege to work with so many fantastic services users, colleagues, and partners past and present.

Theresa (front, right) in our most recent all staff photo

Being offered a lifeline can change everything. 

Prisoners Abroad translates human rights law into practical life-saving actions by providing prisoners access to vitamins and essential food, emergency medical care, freepost envelopes to keep in touch with home and books and magazines to help sustain mental health.

Can you help to support our life-saving work by donating today?