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11 April 2011

Blog: There is real scope for taking responsibility even behind bars

Mark Day, Head of Policy and Communications at the Prison Reform Trust examines government plans to get more prisoners to work behind bars, in this article originally published in Criminal Justice Matters.

The coalition government’s plan for getting more prisoners to work is, in principle, absolutely right. We know that prisoners who do gain skills for work in prison and are released with a job to go to are far less likely to reoffend than people who go out homeless and jobless. According to a survey by the Ministry of Justice, prisoners who have problems with both employment and accommodation on release from prison had a reoffending rate of 74% during the year after custody, compared to 43% for those with no problems.

Providing work opportunities for prisoners and equipping them with skills for life on release should be central to the rehabilitative work of prisons; but is too often a neglected area. As the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has highlighted, many people in prison are compelled to live a life of ‘enforced, bored idleness’. Currently, under a third of the prison population is engaged in work activities at any one time, mostly in low grade and menial tasks. Between 2007/2008 and 2009/2010 the average hours per prisoner per week spent in work decreased from 12.6 to 11.8 hours.

Placing work at the heart of the prison regime, as the justice green paper proposes, could play an important part in the coalition’s plans for a ‘rehabilitation revolution’. It will be essential that employment options are meaningful and linked to opportunities for work on release. Clarke has stated that: ‘We would need to ensure that, wherever possible, the hours spent in productive employment by prisoners reintroduced to the work habit were similar to those to which they would have to adapt if they obtained a job when they left prison.’

Companies such as Cisco, Travis Perkins and Network Rail already provide work places in prisons. The government will need to engage with employers and encourage them to follow their lead. It will also need to support companies in the recruitment and retention of ex-offenders. Reforming the outdated Rehabilitation of Offenders Act will be essential to dismantling some of the barriers that prevent former offenders from gaining employment.

Proposals for prisoners to contribute part of the money they earn into a victims’ fund make sense. Earnings will need to be sufficient to enable prisoners to pay into the fund, as well to contribute to their upkeep in prison, support families on the outside and save for resettlement. Employers should provide work at the national minimum wage so as to prevent exploitation and not to undercut local labour costs.

Provision will need to be made for older and disabled prisoners to enable them to work. Where this is not possible, arrangements for alternative meaningful activities will need to be in place. Opportunities for volunteering, for instance through Samaritan Listeners schemes, peer mentoring and prisoners’ councils, should be extended alongside increasing the availability of work places. There is real scope for taking responsibility even behind bars.

The government can learn from one scheme that is already doing pioneering work in employing prisoners and former offenders. National Grid leads a partnership of over 80 companies engaged in the Young Offenders Programme, which offers training to young people in prison with the prospect of a job on release.

Over 1,500 offenders have now gone through the Young Offender Programme. The reoffending rate is only 7%, compared with the national average of over 70%. According to the National Grid website: ‘As well as providing motivated, skilled gas network operatives, the programme is delivering shareholder value and increasing the positive perceptions of many stakeholders.’

Making prisons places of meaningful, purposeful activity would mean prisoners serving time rather than wasting time.

Mark Day