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Penal Reform

Submitted by on 26 Jul 2011 – 11:35

Frances CrookFrances Crook, Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform

The Maths

As of June 2009 there were 37,018 prisoners sentenced to a period of longer than 4 years in prison. At the end of April 2010 12,918 people were serving indefinite sentences; many may spend the rest of their lives in custody. Every year a prisoner serves in jail costs the taxpayer an average of £45,000. In 2008–09 only 27% of men and 13% of women entered any kind of employment on release from prison. The truth is that British taxpayers fund people in prison both inside and upon their release. This maths doesn’t work for prisoners, victims or taxpayers. The sums don’t add up and in a recent Howard League for Penal Reform Report, Business Behind Bars, an implementation plan was suggested that shows that just because long-term prisoners are in custody, this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t work.

Real Work

Last October Kenneth Clarke, Secretary of State for Justice, told the Conservative Party Conference that, “…we need to instil in our jails a regime of hard work.”  The Secretary of State was referring to his “rehabilitation revolution,” a fundamental change in ethos, across the prison service; the objective of which is to change the prison landscape from one where prisoners are compelled to spend 20 hours a day on their bunks to one where prisoners can participate in a normal working day. This objective is also contained within the coalition agreement which states prisoners will engage in “properly paid work.”

The Howard League had been leading the way on real work in prison over a decade before the current justice secretary announced the need for work to be brought into prisons. The Howard League is the only organisation that has ever run a real business inside prison. Barbed was a commercial enterprise run by the Howard League inside Coldingley prison. The charity is committed to the principle that long-term prisoners should be properly employed, pay tax and support their families.

What real work should look like

Throughout the life of the Barbed social enterprise the following definition of real work in prison was developed:

• Businesses would form their own contractual relationships with prisoners as their employees;

• Work would take place within the prison;

• Businesses would function within prisons to make a profit;

• Prisoners would be paid the rate for the job;

• Prisoners would make contributions from their earnings to a charitable fund and to victims; and

• Prisoners/employees must pay tax and national insurance.

Real work in prison looks to replicate, as closely as is possible, the experience of normal employment in the prison environment. An individual involved in real work in prison will be both employee and prisoner. In the former role there is a direct and legal relationship between the individual and the employer, while in the latter role there is the traditional relationship between the prisoner and prison. Real work seeks to keep the two as distinct as possible.

The barriers

Business Behind Bars outlined the main obstacles within the prison system that need to be overcome in order for real work in prison to be implemented.

The first concern is security, changing daily regimes in order to put work first would have to be a priority in order to guarantee the certainty private providers require. Some have suggested such a shift may present security concerns.  However, far from creating a security problem real work presents an opportunity for the prison service to improve security and safety in prisons by moving to a model of more ‘dynamic security’. Dynamic security is essentially a preventative approach to security which seeks to avoid incidents before they take place.

Other concerns relate to cost. The Prison Service currently runs the core day, whereby time out of cell is limited in order to reduce staff and limit expenditure. Such a programme interferes with the ability to run a full working week. The Prison Service has already indicated their willingness to scale back the core day in order to meet the challenges of real paid work in prison.

The Results

Real work has the potential to revolutionise prison life as we know it.  It will prove that prison regimes can be flexible and give prisoners the opportunity to contribute to society and take part in meaningful activity. If implemented fully and properly real work in prison will create real employment relationships with real employment rights that will revolutionise the lives of prisoners and their chances of gaining meaningful employment upon release.

In terms of the maths that this article began with, real work in prison creates an opportunity to revolutionise this equation. If prisoners engaged in real work, earned pay, paid tax and paid contributions to victims (which would simulate the costs of rent and food that they do not pay in custody), then real work could raise up to £10 million for the treasury from tax and national insurance and a further £17 million for victims of crime.

For more information on Business Behind Bars – Visit the Howard League website