Reducing re-offending through the power of work and learning

How a bakery and a catering initiative are among the social enterprises helping inmates prepare for life beyond prison

Every time No 10 turns its attention to the British prison estate and comes up with a few proposals, the public is promised a major “overhaul” or “shake-up” of the system. David Cameron is the latest prime minister to do so, making the bold claim his 2016 reforms will be “the biggest shake-up of prisons since the Victorian era”.

Surprisingly, penal reform campaigners have given Cameron’s reform plan a cautious welcome. Everyone agrees the high level of reoffending remains the biggest problem: 46 per cent of all prisoners reoffend within a year of release; 60 per cent of short-sentence prisoners reoffend in the same period. Reoffending costs the country £13bn a year.

Encouragingly, Cameron recognises the need to get more extensive, engaging forms of rehabilitation going on inside prisons, and after prisoners are released. So league tables will now be published showing how successful prisons are at cutting reoffending and helping inmates find jobs. The Prime Minister also wants to change the rules so ex-offenders can apply for jobs without declaring any convictions, at least initially, to have a better chance of getting interviews.

And perhaps most significantly, governors will be given autonomy over their operation and budgets. It means they will be set free to commission more of the bold rehabilitation projects already going on in some British prisons.

The Prime Minister also wants to change the rules so ex-offenders can apply for jobs without declaring any convictions

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, says it “opens up a space for radical and rational thinking”. Britain’s charities and social enterprises are ready to step into that space, brimming with radical and rational ideas on how to break the cycle of reoffending.

Work – and the promise of it – is often the key. Take the Freedom Bakery, a social enterprise allowed to set up an artisan bakery inside HMP Low Moss outside Glasgow. Trained prisoners are then offered help getting work upon their release. Or the Clink Charity, a London-based food and catering initiative which runs a training programme inside prison kitchens, then mentors people towards permanent work in the hospitality industry after they get out.

Big Issue Invest – the social investment arm of The Big Issue – supports several social enterprises finding opportunities for ex-prisoners. Blue Sky, for instance, is an organisation handling waste management and recycling contracts across the country, and it employs ex-offenders exclusively to do the work. In the 10 years since Blue Sky was set up, it has employed more than 1000 ex-prisoners. Only 15 per cent have reoffended.

Unfortunately, a lot of this work is still considered a luxury, above-and-beyond stuff when it comes to the work of the probation service. Since the Ministry of Justice decided to part-privatise it, all but the most dangerous offenders are handled by the private sector in an effort to reduce costs.

In the 10 years since Blue Sky was set up, it has employed more than 1000 ex-prisoners

James Butler, public affairs manager at Social Enterprise UK, says there is “frustration” that most of the big contracts have not “given much opportunity for the really innovative work and personalised treatment which social enterprises provide”.

“It may be that giving governors more leeway will lead to them seeing the value of the great work that social enterprises do – there’s certainly room for them to play a bigger role,” he says. “They know what works to stop the reoffending cycle.”

In the end, putting the time in with people and giving them a stake in society is cost-effective. Invest in people and you save money. It’s a principle David Cameron’s mum Mary understands, having signed a petition against the closure of every children’s centre in Oxfordshire because of cuts to early years funding.

Cameron’s aunt Clare called the cuts “very short-sighted”. Let’s hope her nephew’s government can set its sights on the long-term more often. Likewise prison governors, who have an opportunity now to make sure fewer inmates fall prey to the revolving door.