Frustration as Steps to Freedom payment for ex-prisoners hasn't increased in 33 years

Many prisoners recently released from jail are finding the price of freedom comes at a high cost.

At the end of their sentence, inmates get a $350 one-off Steps to Freedom payment to help restart their lives. That amount hasn't increased for more than three decades.

Advocates say that challenges like finding a job and somewhere to live at a time when ex-inmates are at their most vulnerable increase their risk of reoffending.

Tui Ah Loo is CEO of Te Pā, a kaupapa Māori organisation that helps reintegrate recently released prisoners back into society. She calls the meagre payment "barbaric" and believes it's a reason many re-offend.

"We've had lots of instances where our people have said 'it's too hard here. I just want to go back inside. I get three meals a day, a roof over my head, a warm bed'. And it breaks my heart when it happens," she said.

Experts have repeatedly recommended that the Steps to Freedom grant be raised, as it falls well short of covering essential costs.

Unlike other benefits, the grant is not indexed to inflation or wage growth.

"[The] cost of living's gone up and yet this amount has stayed stagnant for 30 years," Ah Loo said.

The Minister of Social Development and Employment, Louise Upston, acknowledged to The Hui that the Steps to Freedom payment hadn't been increased for the past 33 years. Upston says she's seeking advice on changes to support for recently released prisoners.

Upston pointed out MSD also offers other payments like those to help with emergency housing costs.

Te Whāngai Trust near the Firth of Thames has helped upskill hundreds of ex-prison inmates getting them into work so that they don't have to rely on a benefit.

Trust founder Adrienne Dalton has seen the satisfaction they've gained and the new lives they've built.

"They're paying tax and they're building their self-esteem and the family have really good role models to be proud of. And that's really important. The kids have seen them in jail, and now they see them in the community contributing."

But the work done by the Trust for the past 18 years is now in jeopardy. A lack of funding has caused the trust to suspend paying its workers for the next two weeks.

"The Government just announced the other day that people, whanau, with children in emergency housing will go to the top of the list," Ah Loo said.

"I endorse that, but that means our people get pushed further to the bottom of the list."

A move she fears leaves them at further risk of returning to jail. 

Made with support of Te Māngai Pāho and New Zealand On Air.