No Offence! conference

Nina Champion, Head of Policy, Prisoners Education Trust / Prisoner Learning Alliance Secretariat, gives a summary of issues discussed at the No Offence! conference.

As the OLASS 4 contracts reach their mid-way point, it was timely of No Offence! to hold a conference to explore how providers and others are responding to the challenge of developing prisoner’s ‘employability’.  Employability however is not easy to define.  This was the focus of discussions by members of the Prisoner Learning Alliance while researching their report Smart Rehabilitation who have called for a broad definition of ‘employability’ including soft, academic and vocational skills.  With the OLASS contracts paying providers by accreditation outputs rather than the outcome of getting a prisoner into employment after release, are the outputs resulting in employment for prisoners? 

The answer is I don’t know, as this information is either not collected, or not published publicly.  We do know that the Work Programme evaluation (p.14) showed 5% of ex-offenders found employment, but the target set had been 8%.  This indicates that securing employment for ex-prisoners is not an easy task, so what more can prisons and OLASS providers do to make the most of time in custody to help prisoners achieve their goal of employment?

Several themes arose throughout the No Offence conference; employer engagement, access to ICT, support for self employment, prisoner responsibility, joining-up and aspiration.

Employer engagement

In the workshop I ran, I showed a short film of an interview with a commercial baker who had in the past had a fantastic relationship with a local prison as a result of being invited in for an open day to see the prison bakery and meet learners.  The baker advised prisons to be proactive in inviting local businesses to come into prisons, to involve them in developing the curriculum offer and to build a relationship of trust when sending prisoners out on ROTL to work placements.  Tragically he no longer employs prisoners or ex-prisoners due to contracts changes and having not been contacted by the new staff.  He said developing long term, consistent relationships with employers is key. 

An example of working to meet employer need was given by The Manchester College who have a pilot pre-apprenticeship project running in HMYOI Thorn Cross, HMYOI Stoke Heath and HMP Kennet with specialist trainer Amber Train. The programme consists of pre-apprenticeship training in custody including vocational and functional skills combined with practical work experience on ROTL. So far 67% of learners who have completed the scheme have gone on to gain employment in the rail track industry, nine are in full apprenticeships and two have been promoted to controllers.   They would like to offer full apprenticeships during custody, but NIACE explained that there are various barriers including the need for a contract of employment and to pay an apprenticeship wage of £2.68 per hour – both of which, at present, unfortunately cannot happen within custody. 

No Offence launched the Unlock your future initiative to encourage employers to recruit people with convictions and provide ex-prisoners a database of vacancies available with such employers.  

Access to ICT and self employment support

In a workshop on self-employment, the barrier prisoners’ face by not having controlled access to the internet was clear.  Business author and founder of The Escape Route, Kit Sadgrove, said that the internet has made it easier for sole trader businesses to attract customers and ‘look’ bigger than they are.  The internet is also a key tool for researching the market and competitors.  However without prisoners having access to the internet, it is very difficult to do the research needed to make their business plan before release.  They also cannot access websites with information about setting up a business or how to access grants and support.  He said having the skills to develop and maintain their own simple website would also be valuable for prisoners.  Despite HMP Wolds enabling this training to be provided through Summit Media, prisoners in other establishments are unable to develop this skill.  (See report Through the Gateway for more information). Designing websites could even be a business in its own right.  There are however some charities and organisations able to provide some support including Start Up, The Escape Route, The Prince’s Trust, PRIME and Prisoners' Education Trust who provide access to distance learning courses in setting up a business, marketing, book keeping etc.

Prisoner responsibility

One of the aspects of journalist Raphael Rowe’s speech that struck me, was his description of how he had become institutionalised after twelve years in prison before his conviction was quashed and he was freed from prison.  The difficulty in deciding which brand of baked beans to choose in the supermarket overwhelmed him, having only had the option of ‘happy shopper beans’ on his prison canteen sheet.  In my workshop, discussion turned to a key factor of employability being the ability to take responsibility and being proactive.  Prisons do well at taking away responsibility and choice then expect prisoners to revert immediately walking through the gate.  A Governor from Holland explained that progressive Dutch law now states that one pillar of their prison system is to make the prisoner ‘self-supporting’.  Frank, PET alumni and volunteer employment support worker at St. Giles Trust, who was co-facilitating the workshop with me, described the difficulties many ex-prisoners have with using computers for job searching and needing to rely on others to help them.  He suggested support to develop these skills before release would help this process of taking responsibility.  Another example of good practice of developing employability through responsibility was learner participation in forums and student councils.  

Joining-up

One of the main themes of the Prisoner Learning Alliance report Smart Rehabilitation was the importance of joining-up to achieve successful outcomes.  Several examples of good practice were revealed throughout the day.  The example of The Manchester College, Amber train and Rail Track described above being one.  Another was quite simple; a representative from the National Careers Service described the value of sitting in the same office with the education managers and being located next door to the offender managers.  He described how this helped to avoid duplication of work and enabled a smoother transition and partnership working between the different agencies so their plans for the individual prisoner are able to match up and complement each other.  Another example of joining – up was an interesting social investment bond called The Together Model where social investors, a community development finance initiative and local charities from the West Midlands joined-together to raise £3million to support 20-30 ex-prisoners gain qualifications, support and paid work experience in painting and decorating by doing up properties and selling them on for a profit to re-invest and return to investors after five years.  

Aspiration

The final theme was about aspiration.  Given the reports of ‘in work poverty’ this week and increasing use of food banks by those in work but on minimum wage or zero hours contracts, will low skilled, low wage employment really help prisoners desist from crime? The National Audit Office reported that skills are a crucial way out of the ‘low pay, no-pay cycle’.  Vicky Pryce commented in her speech that prisoners shouldn’t be stuck in low skilled workshops, but should ensure work combines with learning.  The Manchester College proudly reported that some of their Rail Track apprentices had been promoted to controller and the CEO of ‘The Together Model’ clearly has high aspirations for his painters and decorators, saying “We are not just turning them into employees, but the employers of the future”.  At Prisoners Education Trust we also believe in aspiration, providing a route for prisoners to access further and higher education level courses, to help them compete in the jobs market and secure a career rather than just a job.