The UK prison population has soared to more than 85,000, with 20,000 prisoners discharged in the quarter ending June 2012 alone. Around 60% of offenders re-offend within two years of release. What is being done to reduce these rates? Alongside public services, a plethora of non-profits and social enterprises exist to provide support to ex-offenders upon the completion of their sentence. Clearly, only a holistic approach can break the cycle of recidivism, but we’d like to focus on two case studies that involve the employment of ex-offenders; both of which recognise and harness the potential of this group.
Approach 1: Providing paid employment
Blue Sky is a social enterprise that only employs ex-offenders. By offering a proper job with a proper company, Blue Sky aims to break the cycle of re-offending and challenge perceptions about ex-offenders, achieving real and long-term benefits for society.
Employees who have been recently released from prison are offered six months’ paid employment working on grounds maintenance and waste management contracts. While they are with Blue Sky, the ex-offenders develop additional skills to support their move into further employment, such as driving licences or relevant vocational qualifications.
Blue Sky has employed more than 500 ex-offenders since 2005. The employee re-offending rate is only 15%: 48% obtain sustained employment on leaving, and 60% of the business is funded by delivering commercial work. This success has led to Blue Sky receiving a number of awards.
A member of the Blue Sky team identified various drivers of success, including that ex-offenders feel they have a proper job, are encouraged to take personal responsibility and work hard, feel proud to be able to support their family and are even happy to pay tax. At the same time, the model allows for intense mentoring support due to the significant time that supervisors, ex-offenders themselves, spend with the employees.
Approach 2: Microenterprise
Startup provides business education and small grants to ex-offenders, supporting them to set up their own micro-enterprises. Many offenders display entrepreneurial skills within the criminal world, and organisations such as Startup allow these skills to be honed and directed into positive and legitimate enterprises. These have included web companies, decorating businesses, gardening businesses and hairdressing businesses.
Self-employment can be more appropriate for many ex-offenders who struggle with the expectations of employers and the workplace environment. Since its inception, Startup has supported 230 clients into self-employment and their clients have a re-offending rate of under 5%.
Describing their experience, clients of Startup have said: “I am now in charge of my own future”; and “I’d worked hard in prison to get qualifications. But you leave prison with no money to get tools or transport that enables you to start any kind of business. To be able to put forward your ideas to Startup and get advice and physical and financial support, is the difference between being able to work and being on the dole. Employers are generally not interested in someone with a record.”
Both Blue Sky and Startup demonstrate the potential of helping ex-offenders to lead productive lives and contribute positively to society through direct employment or self-employment. The challenge remains in ensuring that all people leaving prison can access the same employment opportunities, raising a number of questions:
??? How can organisations remain sustainable and achieve scalable results?
??? How can smaller organisations be helped to tender for payment by results contracts or social impact bonds?
??? Are there alternative business models for micro-enterprise development, such as providing clients with interest free micro-loans, rather than grants?
??? Can closer collaboration between organisations be facilitated, for example, could Startup help their successful clients go on to employ other ex-offenders along the Blue Sky model?
??? How can closer links be formed between the training opportunities on offer within prison and the employment opportunities available upon leaving prison, to ensure that prisoners are learning relevant skills that will be beneficial on their release?
??? How can ex-offenders be supported to access employment opportunities in higher-skilled jobs (where appropriate), rather than manual work?
Prison reform that unlocks potential
We would like to see all ex-offenders systematically becoming integrated into the economy and harnessing their potential and skills to contribute. Organisations like Blue Sky and Start-up are helping us to get there. Alongside this, many argue for more radical change in the entire prison system to unleash the potential of all prisoners.
Participle is one such organisation; its “Learning Works” initiative puts forward a practical and affordable case for prison reform in which the estimated spending ratio of 80:20 investment in security: rehabilitation, is reversed to 20:80. The proposed new prison architecture maintains the highest security while freeing up resources which can be re-directed to provide extensive learning. The Learning Works programme addresses the whole being; connects prisoners to the outside world, including training that suits available employment opportunities; and moves from a regime of external control to internal discipline.
Such a programme, together with organisations that can further help ex-offenders earn a living and become an integral and meaningful part of the outside world on release, could bring us closer to our vision of a safer and more positive society.
Freya Holland-Maxwell and Parita Doshi are 2012 On Purpose associates. On Purpose is a one-year leadership programme for professionals who want to transition into a social enterprise career. It involves two six-month work placements in socially-driven organisations, intensive 1:1 support and a business training programme.
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