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Debbie Ryan

Working Links

Director of Justice Services

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Working prisons: A new source of affordable labour?


Even though only 20% of employers have knowingly recruited an ex-prisoner, most bosses report that they work as hard, if not harder, than those with no convictions.

But employing offenders and ex-offenders isn’t just good for business. It also contributes to creating a safer society. 
A mere 10,000 in a prison population of 86,500 in England and Wales currently undertake a full working week.
But the government, under the auspices of its ‘working prisons, working people’ campaign, is keen to see more offenders take on regular work while ‘inside’, enabling them to earn the money to repay victims and gain the valuable skills required to break traditional cycles of unemployment and reoffending on release. 
However, before it is possible to realise the benefits that work can bring in rehabilitation terms, there are a few challenges that must be overcome first.
Widespread scepticism
There are 130 prisons across England and Wales, some small, some large, some in cities and some in rural areas, but most have excellent transport links. The majority are massively under-utilised, with available space ranging from small classrooms to huge warehouses.
Employers can also benefit from a potential workforce of thousands – people who could work in industries such as manufacturing, construction, warehousing, recycling, food services and IT.
Indeed the likes of Marks & Spencer, Travelodge and Timpson have already shown that it makes commercial sense to set up prison workshops and can help generate growth for UK plc.
But many employers remain sceptical about getting involved in prison industries for two reasons. Firstly, they fear the potential reputational backlash of employing offenders or being targeted for taking advantage of “slave labour”. 
Secondly and more commonly, they are concerned about the amount of investment in both time and resource terms that may be necessary to set up and maintain prison workshops. 
But here are some considerations that may help HR directors to think about and address such concerns:
1. Evaluate the value of a potential new source of affordable labour
Some UK employers that were once pilloried for taking jobs overseas are now considering returning operations to the UK – and setting them up in prisons to gain access to a reliable source of affordable labour.
Our research found that awareness of the government’s agenda on encouraging the creation of working prisons among companies with extensive offshore operations was not as wide as it should be, however.
2. Familiarise yourself with the code of conduct
One of the concerns among employers was the potential public perception of hiring ‘slave labour’ at the expense of local jobs.
But the Ministry of Justice has put in place a code of conduct for the ethical operation of commercial enterprises within prisons, which provides guidelines on fair pay and emphasises prisoner rehabilitation and skills acquisition.
There are also clear rules to prevent anti-competitive behaviour and ensure that jobs created in a prison environment don’t take employment away from the outside community. 
3. Turn a reputational risk into a corporate social responsiblity win
Most large organisations have a corporate responsibility strategy these days. The biggest driver behind the working prisons initiative is that gainful employment cuts an ex-prisoner’s likelihood of reoffending in half.
This means that being part of a solution to help create safer communities should be a positive thing for an employer’s reputation. Our study also showed that organisations with in-prison operations found that they had a positive effect on staff morale, not least because they were viewed as responsible employers.
4. Get third party help
Our research indicated that a lot of employers are wary of the possible demands on staff time and resources that setting up and running prison workshops would entail. 
But government reforms mean that specialist organisations can now offer their services to employers that are interested in going down this route, but do not have the inside knowledge or existing relationships with prison governors to get such a major project off the ground. 
Slight physical changes to prisons are often required to accommodate business needs and specialist organisations can oversee these potential alterations.
They can also help to organise contracts, agree pay terms and re-configure the prison’s timetable and security arrangements to enable offenders to be as productive as possible on a free-of-charge basis.
But it’s not just FTSE 500 companies or large manufacturers that can benefit from the working prisons initiative.
Using offenders as a source of labour could also enable social enterprises and charitable organisations to develop or even start up new operations in a cost-effect manner, while demonstrating that they practice what they preach in terms of helping to improve the communities in which they work. 
To make the vision a reality, however, it is clear that more employers need to follow in the footsteps of Sir Richard Branson and James Timpson by giving prisoners the opportunity to learn how to make an honest living.

Debbie Ryan is director of justice services at welfare-to-work provider, Working Links.
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Debbie Ryan

Director of Justice Services

Read more from Debbie Ryan

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