Onward’s report is refreshing in its focus on the practical changes that will change prisons from places we “put offenders for public protection, into places we push offenders to gain the skills to make a success of their lives when they leave.”
Treating prisons as places of education and training has finally moved firmly into the ‘Overton Window’ of acceptable public policy over the last few years. Perhaps it was the unexpected language of redemption and rehabilitation from a Conservative Justice Secretary, sustained by his successors, or the cumulative impact of decades of advocacy from prison reformers. Whatever the reason, judging the success of the penal system by how well it prepares people for a job outside now has universal appeal, and Government initiatives like the New Futures Network are taking advantage of this appetite for change.
You can make a capitalist argument for future employment as a core element of a sentence, based on efficiency and minimising the burden on taxpayers who currently pick up the £7-10 billion a year tab for reoffending.
You can also argue for it from a social justice standpoint. Prisons are disproportionately packed with people from poor backgrounds, who have been in care (23% of total, rising to 50% of those under 25), and who are from a minority ethnic group (26%). Education and a good job helps break cycles of disadvantage.
You can even mount a libertarian defence of a coherent, rigorous, education and employment strategy: if every other institution has failed to equip someone with the tools for self-sufficiency, prisons and probation must do so. A Marxist argument is easily found in the prize of the withering state, by reducing the coerced and incarcerated population.
Like Onward, we too have visited Norway prisons and were struck by the profound differences in both philosophy and outcomes. Of course, every prison governor wants to run a rehabilitative regime and offer a full timetable of purposeful activity linked to job prospects. The barriers to doing so are huge, not least violence, drugs and staff experience, preventing a focus on anything other than the basic standards of decency and safety.
Other constraints include the rigidity of national contracts and policy, preventing very local partnerships with FE colleges and small businesses. Or take apprenticeships – one of the recommendations in Onward’s report is for government to allow prisoners eligible to access the Apprenticeship Levy which is currently nursing a £1 billion underspend. At Catch22, we see every day the positive impact our apprenticeship schemes have on some young people who’ve often struggled to get a job. The impact on many prisoners’ prospects would be transformative.
Constraints also exist on the demand-side. Even when chief executives and boards sign up to do more, making changes in their organisations can be like wading through molasses. The perception that ex-prisoners pose a reputation or safety threat to staff and customers is enough for a risk-averse HR department to block appointments. Large employers may sign up in principle but lose patience with the paperwork and inflexible regulation, for example blunt Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks, or punitive insurance premiums. Others would love to talk to their local prison but don’t know how to initiate contact. The centrally commanded hierarchy and constantly rotating managers of the prison service, and fractured probation service, don’t help.
As Onward notes, there are many trailblazers in every area and part of the system. Code4000 is notable for its innovative approach and already measurable impact but many others are working effectively, within prison walls and outside. What unites all successful projects is the emphasis on building sustained, trusting, relationships. Employment and education in prisons have to be strengths-based not needs-based or target-driven. They need to reflect the dignity and status of work, not just the existence of it, and the reality and opportunity of the jobs market.