The hall was full of tables piled high with leaflets advertising employment and apprenticeship opportunities. Then came a throng of men in grey tracksuits; some eager, some anxious. This was an employment fair with a difference: it was in a prison.
Taking the lead from companies such as Timpson, Virgin and Halfords, some employers are making the most of a rare opportunity to search for employees in a slightly different pool of talent. They realise there are many skilled potential employees behind barbed wire and walls—more hungry than most for a chance to find a job and build a better life.
For the 85,000 people in our prisons, finding employment and taking on higher-level education are two of the surest ways to break the cycle of reoffending. In prisons in England, National Careers Service (NCS) staff guide people towards both of these opportunities. They organise employment fairs like the one above, and meet with men and women throughout their sentence to help them plan how to use their time inside to gain the qualifications employers are looking for. But from March 31, this service will disappear, following a decision by the government not to extend NCS contracts. For a prison system already overburdened and underfunded, this is a crushing blow to staff, prisoners, and the hope of rehabilitation.
The Prisoner Learning Alliance wrote to Prisons Minister Rory Stewart last month to ask for an urgent explanation of why these contracts are being cut, and what replacement service will be offered. When this issue was raised in the House of Lords, Lord Keen of Elie, on behalf of the government, cited “inconsistencies” in provision, referring to an internal analysis that has not been published.
Many individual careers service staff go over and above to help prisoners
We are aware the contracts have weaknesses: the standard NCS offer is three 20-minute sessions per prisoner per year—not enough to support people with multiple barriers to employment and without access to the internet to do their own research. However, despite this, many individual careers service staff go over and above to help prisoners, by prioritising individual needs over contractual requirements.
Big changes in the way prison education and related information, advice and guidance services are commissioned and delivered in prisons are due to come into place in April 2019. These will give more power to prison governors. However, while prison education contracts were extended to ensure consistency of provision to prisoners, the ceasing of the NCS contracts will mean a gap of a year in careers advice being available for prisoners. On behalf of the government, Lord Keen suggested that Department for Work and Pensions job coaches and Community Rehabilitation Companies will fill the gap left by the NCS.
But although these services do offer limited support right at the end of a person’s sentence, it takes more than better CV-writing to make a prisoner genuinely employable. They need advice right at the beginning of their sentence about which qualifications to obtain in order to build a CV that will be a counterweight to a ticked criminal conviction box.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
As well as tenacious staff who actively seek out and persuade employers, securing employment also relies on prisoners and employers hearing success stories of people who have gone on to gain employment and thrive in their careers after release. This is something else organised by NCS staff.
‘Karen’ is one such success story—she went from offering peer advice as a prisoner to returning after her release to broker relationships with employers.
Securing a job, or even an interview, makes a huge difference
She says: “I get so much from helping to empower people in prison. A lot have never worked and lack self-confidence. Securing a job, or even an interview, makes a huge difference, and gives them hope for their future after release.”
Like approximately 200 other NCS staff working in prisons in England, Karen is due to lose her job on March 31. “The situation is particularly heart-breaking, as I have spent the last five years developing links with local and national employers and have had some great success stories,” she says. In the last year alone Karen has supported 182 people into work upon release.
In roughly half of English prisons, careers advisors also help prisoners apply for distance-learning courses funded through the national charity Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET), allowing them to study subjects and at levels otherwise unavailable in prison, right up to Open University degrees. These courses have been proven by government research to significantly lower the chance of someone reoffending.
At a time when prisons are in crisis, following significant cuts to experienced prison officers, losing more experienced staff is a cut too far. The NCS contracts are not perfect, but cutting all careers advice is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Rory Stewart has rightly said in an article in The Guardian this week that “boosting employment prospects” of prisoners is key to reducing reoffending. If the government is serious about making our communities safer, we urge it to reverse this decision before 200 experienced staff are forced to leave – taking valuable employer contacts and expertise away with them.