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Government Looks to Real Work in Prison

Steve Gummer, The Howard, Spring 2011 Edition

The government has published a green paper on sentencing reform and rehabilitation that has at its heart proposals on work in prison which has been directly inspired by an initiative from the Howard League for Penal Reform.

In the wake of the green paper, the Howard League capitalised by publishing a briefing¸ Barbed: what happened next, which follows up on the story of the world’s first social enterprise based inside a prison. It is this project that demonstrated real work in prison in action.

The Howard League established a graphic design studio inside a prison in 2005 and ran it as a proper business. Barbed was established in Coldingley prison, near Woking.

A meaningful wage was a central pillar of the experiment. All Barbed employees were employed on the same contract as other Howard League staff and for much of the project the prisoners paid income tax and national insurance. To mimic payment for utilities, transport, food, rent or mortgage, prisoners contributed 30% of their wages into a separate fund that made charitable contributions. In addition, all employees made voluntary donations to Victim Support.

Such was the innovation and success of Barbed that in one round of recruitment there were 350 applications for two jobs, in a prison which housed only 420.

A former Barbed employee said, “Barbed gave me a way to provide for my family and contribute in their lives positively. I was able to help pay bills, provide in new ways and support myself.”

The latest research on the subject revisits the prisoners who took part in the Barbed project and catches up with what effect the project has had on their lives. The data demonstrates that real work widened the ambitions of inmates, giving them hope and aspiration for the future. It also served to support the family unit and many of the participants felt the amounts of money they were allowed to send home to their families strengthened their ties to home.

Perhaps most importantly, the briefing notes that of the prisoners who have been released from custody who worked on the Barbed project, not a single one has gone on to reoffend.

The report was welcomed in Parliament with Ben Gummer MP hosting an event in the House of Commons, with a cross-bench range of MPs talking through the issues raised by the briefing. The event, which took place just before the Christmas recess, was well attended by policy-makers and think tank analysts all of whom contributed to the discussion about how real work in prison could be made into a reality.

The discussion focused on assuring the government’s policy of real work in prison matched the lessons learned by the Howard League during the Barbed project.

Secretary of State for Justice, Kenneth Clarke, has previously expressed his support for a regime of real work within the prison estate. As early as October last year he announced that it would be a part of any future plans he developed, saying:

“Most prisoners lead a life of enforced, bored idleness, where getting out of bed is optional.”

“If we want to reduce the crimes these people will commit when they get out, whilst boosting the amount that can be provided for victim support, we need as many prisoners as possible to work hard for regular working hours.”

The Howard League has established that for real work in prison to be effective the following three tenets must be satisfied:

An employment relationship must exist between an external employer (not the prison service) and the prisoner.
Work should be suitably meaningful to inspire pride of labour.
Work should be fairly paid for the task undertaken.

In particular, it is essential that prisoner’s pay must be fairly taxed for the work undertaken. It is essential that prisoners are treated in the same manner as any other employee on the outside. They must understand the pressures and demands of a real work environment. If they are ill-disciplined within prison and have to miss work this time will come out of their annual leave. They should be interviewed for any job they get and ill-discipline will allow the employer to terminate their contract of employment.

Real work in prison could have potentially revolutionary effects on the regime put in place by the Prison Service. Recent reports by the Independent Inspectorate of Prisons have frequently discovered a lack of purposeful activity taking place within prison walls.

A 2010 report of Forest Bank prison revealed 33% of prisoners took place in no activity akin to education or work. The same figure was found at Leeds prison. The Inspection team found that there had been some improvements to the range and quality of provision of purposeful activity within Leeds Prison since the last inspection, but there continued to be too little purposeful activity for men at the institution.

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform said, “The report says, ‘Barbed transformed peoples’ lives’. Not just for the men employed by Barbed, but also for society. None of the men released have committed any further offences; it was a small project with great successes.

“There is no reason why a ring fenced group of prisons cannot start to offer real work for those prisoners on long sentences, with regimes that are based around the working week. As the coalition government seeks to introduce real work in prison, our briefing on the story of Barbed lights the way to radical reform that will help prisoners prepare for a productive and crime free life on release.”

To view the Howard League for Penal Reform website click here