18 May 2016

More needs to be done to get ex-prisoners back into work


A visit to HMP Ford is not what you might think of in your mind’s eye when you think of our prison service. Located in the almost idyllic surroundings of the South Downs, Ford is a so-called open prison for Category D prisoners; most famous, perhaps, for the apocryphal rumours that George Best once played for the prison football team when he was the prison’s most famous inmate.

Ford is an interesting case study in what more can be done to reduce Britain’s heinously high reoffending rate. The most recent official statistics suggest that some 46% of adult offenders released committed further crime within a year. These stats are slightly skewed – of those who spend less than a year inside, the rate is as high as 59%; of those who have spent more than a decade behind bars, it’s below one in five. The latter is still too high, for moral as well as financial reasons; it costs more than £25,000 a year per individual imprisoned.

Ford is doing its best to change these rates. Unremarkable outhouses host plastic and metal manufacturing, while out the back inmates tend to the sizable plots of vegetables and bedding plants, many of which end up in the popular on-site farm shop. Another building houses the painting and decorating ‘college,’ where inmates can gain their NVQs up to Level 2 – as they can in other workshops, in everything from engineering to accounting. The formidable woman teaching in the decorating college speaks with pride of attending the graduation of one of her former students, who completed his Level 3 at a local college after being released; he now runs a small decorating firm.

It’s easy to forget just how difficult the readjustment to life outside prison walls can be. Ford is located on both sides of a busy main road; crossing the road to go from the (basic) accommodation to the workshops on the other side of the road for the first time is for some prisoners the first time they have seen moving traffic for a number of years.

Further, in a world in which almost everything is done online, many prisoners have been inside for so long that using the internet is almost entirely alien; if you want proof of this, try to explain twitter to somebody who has been ‘behind the gate’ for ten years. On this, the prison service is woefully behind; security concerns dictate that the vast majority of prisons still do not allow prisoners online even in closely monitored situations.

Mercifully, Ford is thinking big; not only does it provide hands-on training, courses on self-employment – including navigating the tax system and company bureaucracy, baffling even for many on the outside – are complemented with a digital campus, where residents can look for jobs and engage with the outside world.

Ford is not the only one. Brixton, in rather less pastoral surroundings, has linked up with the charity Out for Good to partner local employers with offenders in the last two years of the sentence. Katie Pedder, who runs the charity, says that the ideal situation is that on the last day of their sentence and the first day of freedom, an individual goes to the same job – they just go home to a different bed. Brixton’s new centre for skills such as cladding and dry-walling puts many colleges to shame, and Brixton also shows a way forward in terms of delivering these projects, linking up with private sector organisations as well as charities to deliver success in straitened financial times.

Andrew Selous, the Prisons Minister, is leading monthly employer engagement events at prisons across the country helping to reduce the barriers to employment for offenders and alleviate some of the concerns that employers have – who find employing anybody challenging, let alone ex-offenders. If he is to succeed, it is crucial that small- and medium-sized businesses get involved, too; well-publicised firms such as Timpson’s and Halfords are doing outstanding work in this area, but the real prize is lower down the business spectrum.

Not every prison can be like Ford or Brixton. There is no case for blind optimism when thinking about the justice system; security of the public is, of course, the primary concern. But where possible, we must do more.

Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, and Selous seem to get this. Gove yesterday announced plans to relax restrictions on prisoners being put into jobs whilst released on temporary licence. Further autonomy for individual Governors will give them the chance to reach out to local employers like never before.

There remains much to do, but the prize is significant. The UK has a massive skills shortage; IoD members rank it as one of the three major factors holding their businesses back. There are intense problems in the construction and hospitality industry, and years of ‘enforced college’ inside equip many ex-offenders with the skills they need to do just those jobs. Former inmates at Ford have gone on to be managers of gas fitting companies, ship repair welders, and international management consultants running their own small firms. The success stories are numerous.

But all too often, people still fall through the cracks. There are hundreds if not thousands of initiatives designed to reduce the re-offending rate, and business bodies are increasingly aware of the untapped skills resource behind those high walls. Where Government could help most, perhaps, is by tying these initiatives into something like a coherent whole. Business too, could do more. The infamous ‘box’ on application forms asking job applicants to declare unspent convictions is undoubtedly a roadblock. Asking candidates that same question after two interviews seems a more sensible approach, allowing employers to see the true face of an ex-offender, not just their past.

It is rare in politics for a win-win; lower re-offending rates, lower prison costs, and increased skills in the workforce represents a win-win-win. We have made a good start; there is much to do.

Andy Silvester is Head of Campaigns at the Institute of Directors