Working prisons? Or prisons that work

Keeping people locked up is costly and ineffective, the Coalition government said of the British prison system when it came to power in June 2010. Now the talk is of giving prisoners 40-hour working weeks. So what happened to those early promises of putting rehabilitation first, asks Seb Klier

Seb Klier
19 March 2012
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The British criminal justice system was about to undergo a ‘rehabilitation revolution’, said the Coalition Government when it first came to power in June 2010. For too long, ministers said, focus on custody and punishment had taken precedence over rehabilitation. Ken Clarke, appointed Secretary of State for Justice, even spoke of ‘a costly and ineffectual approach that fails’. As a result of this approach, the courts were clogged up with persistent offenders and a record UK prison population at the time of over 85,000 people, costing the state an average of £45,000 a year per prisoner. Prisoners were stuck in a revolving door of crime and incarceration, with too many barriers to breaking this cycle. A new rehabilitative approach was needed to turn around decades-old problems.

But recently the government has appeared afraid of using the ‘R’ word. It reportedly removed the word ‘rehabilitation’ from the title of the ongoing  Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill and inserting the word ‘punishment’ to make it sound more punitive. There is strikingly little mention of rehabilitation in the body of the bill. So what shape is the Justice Secretary’s revolution taking?

One idea linked to the ‘R’ word has remained in public debate: that of ‘working prisons’ which the Government has talked of doubling. This policy, as described by Ken Clarke, is that the prison regime is adapted to allow prisoners to work 40 hours a week, thus ensuring they are kept busy, learn new skills that might improve employability on release and are able to put some of their wages back into funds for victims of crime.

For those involved in reform of the criminal justice system, such a policy would appear to tick many boxes. Prisoners do not languish for years doing nothing and are more likely to get jobs on the outside (where employment has been strongly linked to reduced reoffending). In addition, the income earned can give better support to victims of crime. But like many such schemes, the policy of ‘working prisons’ can be implemented in a number of ways. To be effective, it needs to be done correctly. If it is not properly linked to education programmes, the ‘working prison’ idea may not be at all rehabilitative.

Introducing 40-hour working weeks involves a complete overturn of current prison regimes, including the functioning of education departments. There are already many practical and logistical obstacles to learning in prisons. A crude expansion of working hours would obviously further reduce the time available for formal education. Detailed planning of how work would fit into a prison regime is needed to avoid it  having a negative impact on other purposeful activities. So far this has not been evident.

Equally, the kind of work to be undertaken in prisons is absolutely central to whether or not it will be rehabilitative. If the new ‘working prisons’ are merely an expansion of current prison industries, it would be reasonable to question the real purpose of the policy.

Much of the work currently undertaken in prison is menial, repetitive and low-skilled. It involves tasks such as counting piles of screws and putting airline headphones into plastic bags for hours on end. Projects that involve genuine vocational training and offer varied work are rare.

Merely expanding the current prison work regimes would look more like additional punishment than rehabilitation. Furthermore, it would be unlikely to achieve the ultimate goal of reducing re-offending. Shredding paper does not make offenders more employable, boost self-esteem or inspire them once they leave prison.  Nor does labeling tins or repackaging food products. None of these kinds of work provide prisoners with new skills, qualifications or opportunities to learn. In fact, they are a good way of making work seem more unappealing and of encouraging the notion that crime is the only viable life-choice.

Education requires commitment

Currently, prisoners are frequently paid higher wages for doing low-skilled prison industry work than they would receive doing education or vocational training. This encourages them to go for the short-term financial gain when learning or training might provide a more sustainable route to long-term financial security. The financial advantage and opportunity to leave their cells is sufficient incentive to many prisoners to engage in prison work. They don’t see it as something to aspire to, or a step towards other employment. When the Prisoners’ Education Trust asked them about their experience of tasks in prisons, it received responses such as: ‘I have learnt nothing from any of them’ and ‘Most prison activities fail to provide any realistic and marketable job skills’.

Education, on the other hand, requires commitment and provides tangible skills, knowledge and qualifications. Given current high levels of unemployment, these skills become more important than ever in finding a job in the world outside. An educational programme can also provide vital ‘soft skills’ such as teamwork, integrity and patience, highly valued by potential employers and colleagues.

If we are to reduce reoffending and therefore minimise costs in the criminal justice sector, prison work has to be part of a programme of rehabilitation rather than punishment. It needs to provide education and qualifications, be interesting and be linked to realistic employment possibilities on release.

Education can be transformative. Everyone has the right to appropriate education and learning. Each prisoner will benefit from different courses, from vocational training through to academic study. By providing both educational and working opportunities we create greater possibilities of rehabilitation.

Working prisons will need to focus on learning in its broadest sense; the work undertaken should not be so menial that it allows no opportunity for progression or training. This may mean vocational placements or accredited apprenticeships, but also implementing work that develops soft skills, or improves core educational skills such as literacy, numeracy and digital understanding. All should be appreciated as ‘work’.

Beyond prison

Wherever possible, working prisons should link their programmes to resettlement, with opportunities to continue work, education and training on release, including the potential for self-employment. This means more schemes that replicate external work within the prison estate, and more opportunities for newly released prisoners to work on temporary license. It also means expanding provision of education for prisoners. Schemes such as the Timpson Academies, which teach prisoners shoe repair and then provide jobs on release, could be replicated across other industries. The Timpson scheme was the brainchild of a few committed individuals; unfortunately, it is not normal practice. But the penal system needs to explore the potential for such schemes.

Rehabilitation is a long and difficult process that involves equipping prisoners with the confidence, ability and qualifications to succeed in education and work outside prison. It requires a long-term vision and the persistence to follow it through. The Government has identified an important issue but must now bring long-term thinking into the working prisons concept. If it does not its ‘rehabilitation revolution’ will not be worthy of the name. Part of such a revolution can be to extend work in prisons but it must be connected to the wider learning and resettlement process. We will only reduce reoffending if prisoners are given skills to support themselves and opportunities to change their lives.

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