Behind bars shouldn’t mean being shut out of labor and skills opportunities

tuesday 08 november 2022 06h15

By:

Peter Cox

Peter Cox is CEO of Novus

People in prison often have much lower levels of literacy (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

In today’s job market, recruiting is difficult. Vacancies began to decline after the post-pandemic job boom, but businesses are still struggling to hire. Employment rates have stagnated at best since last summer, with the number of over-50s leaving the labor force rising.

The growing skills gap means many employers are thinking twice about their approach to recruitment. Last month, an innovative new pipeline was opened to help shape the labor market: prisoners can for the first time become apprentices while still serving their sentence. This means employers now have the option of hiring directly from the prison population, which currently numbers more than 80,000 adults in prisons across England and Wales.

Of course, not all inmates can be sent out on day release for training. But a significant number of prisoners find themselves in open prisons at the end of their sentence and are beginning to plan to build a new life for themselves upon their release. These are the people who are now eligible for apprenticeship opportunities in vital industries including hospitality and construction, offering direct pathways to jobs in community businesses. The program is initially offered to around 100 prisoners across England before being rolled out throughout the prison sector.

Prisoners are not the only ones to benefit from this program: employers also have a lot to gain. A survey commissioned by the Department of Justice found that more than 90% of companies that employ ex-offenders said they were reliable, good at their jobs, punctual and trustworthy. As James Timpson, director of shoe repair and locksmith business Timpson, says, hiring ex-offenders is good business because “the people we hire from prisons are really good.” The Timpson Group has hired more than 1,500 ex-convicts since 2008 and is a leader in the initiative.

By providing inmates the opportunity to learn and earn at the same time, we can accelerate the journey from the prison cell to sustainable employment. And it has a proven impact on reducing recidivism: Department of Justice research found that, for inmates who served custodial sentences of less than a year, the rate of recidivism after 12 months was 9.4% lower for those who found work after their release than those who did not. The national cost of recidivism to society is £18billion a year. The risk-reward of politics is a no-brainer.

So if exposing prisoners to education and training has a demonstrable impact in helping them find jobs after release, why aren’t we doing more to encourage them?

Many people are unaware that prisoners usually have to choose between going to school or working. Too often they are financially incentivized to perform tasks around the prison such as cleaning, cooking and laundry at the expense of improving their skills and gaining valuable qualifications. Inmates are often far behind their peers educationally when they first enter their cells: 57% of inmates have a literacy level below that expected of an 11-year-old.

Education and training offer them a way to find employment and break the cycle of recidivism – and also help close the gaps in our economy.

Michael A. Bynum