He froze to death alone at the side of a road. There are fears 1,000s could face same tragic fate

Thomas Wilton was found dead near a footpath by a grassy area next to Millbrook Close in Burnley
Thomas Wilton was found dead near a footpath by a grassy area next to Millbrook Close in Burnley -Credit:Google

Campaigners have described the death of a homeless man who died six days after being released from prison as part of a "national scandal".

Thomas Wilton, who lived in Padiham prior to being jailed, was released from Preston Prison on Friday October 29 in 2021. Six days later he was found dead on a grassy area at the side of Accrington Road in Burnley.

Thomas, who had been jailed in 2020 for a number of offences including theft, possession of cannabis, criminal damage and assault, had told prison staff and substance misuse organisation Inspire after his release that he was homeless. When his body was found Thomas, who was born in Manchester, was identified from his fingerprints and police issued an appeal after an initial post-mortem failed to find a cause of his death.


An inquest held this month at Preston Coroner's Court heard that the cause of his death was hypothermia in the context of multiple drug toxicity (opiates, cocaine, benzodiazepines, pregabalin, mirtazapine and alcohol).

Just weeks before Thomas was released from prison six East Lancashire councils in Burnley, Blackburn with Darwen, Hyndburn, Rossendale, Pendle and the Ribble Valley, were awarded government funding of £198,000. The cash was to be used specifically for providing accommodation for people on their release from prison.

Pendle Council was the lead authority for the first funding bid from the Accommodation for Offenders Scheme. Burnley Council has since taken over as the lead authority, with Calico Homes providing the accommodation for up to 80 homeless people, while Blackburn with Darwen submitted their own bid at the last round.

Local authorities have a duty to help homeless people who fit certain criteria and those who may be about to become homeless. In 2022/2023 Burnley had the highest number of people who were classed as homeless and who the authority had a duty of care to house.

An investigation by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, which looks into deaths in custody or those which happen shortly after release from custody, said that the East Lancashire homelessness team had "very limited availability" at the time Thomas was released from prison.

However, as Thomas was released on a Friday, his Community Offender Manager failed to chase up or submit any additional referrals to local authorities to request accommodation. Thomas met with his offender manager two days before he was found dead.

One of the wings at Preston
One of the wings at Preston Prison -Credit:HM Inspectorate of Prisons

The ombudsman's report concluded: "Homelessness on release from custody is a significant and complex challenge, particularly over a weekend. Mr Wilton was only in prison for one month, was released from prison on a Friday and spent his first weekend homeless and sofa surfing in the community.

"His death highlights the importance of staff making prompt referrals and chasing them up to avoid periods of homelessness after release. The East Lancashire Homelessness Prevention Team told us that at that time there was very limited availability and probation practitioners were advised of this, and it was unlikely that Mr Wilton would have been accommodated.

"We understand that in the circumstances Mr Wilton was reliant upon accommodation being provided by the local authority or the charitable accommodation services.

"We accept that any referrals would not have been progressed over the weekend. We would have expected the COM to have chased up this referral the next week, and to have possibly made further accommodation referrals, if necessary, but in the event, Mr Wilton died two days after meeting with her."

A Burnley Council spokesperson said: "Our condolences go to Mr Wilton's family. Sadly, the council wasn't made aware of his release from prison or the fact that he was homeless, either by Mr Wilton or by any of the services that had been dealing with him.

"We will always do our best to find a solution for anyone who presents themselves to us as homeless."

Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "This is a shocking case and yet the issue it highlights is far from rare. It is a national scandal that people are being released from custody to the streets.

"Unfortunately, overcrowded and under-resourced prisons face unacceptable pressures and are struggling to do anything other than warehouse people during their time in custody.

"Things will only get worse unless we see action to significantly reduce prison numbers, so that prisons, probation and local authorities have the investment and resources to help people turn their lives around and prepare them for a safe return to the community."