The Centre for Social Justice has launched a new research and policy project to improve employment outcomes for prison leavers in England and Wales.
People in prison are diverse; they have different skillsets, interests and experiences. While some may enter custody unable to read or write, others may have had lengthy careers in sectors such as finance, construction or hospitality. Despite this, there is a common thread that ties these individuals together – they are all likely to face stigma in the community due to their criminal record which will make it difficult to get a job when they are released.
Prisoners are up to 9 percentage points less likely to reoffend if they have employment once they have left custody. Yet recent data shows that just 16 per cent of prison leavers were employed six weeks after they left the prison gate, while only 23 per cent had a job six months post-release. It is unsurprising therefore that, according to 2019-2020 data, 96 per cent of prisons are missing their employment targets completely.
So how do we improve employment outcomes for people leaving prison? Access to high-quality, tailored education and training, work experience and through the gate support services must form part of the solution. Yet there are significant challenges associated with providing individualised services to a large cohort of people with varied needs.
Ministry of Justice data shows that over half (57 per cent) of assessed prisoners had literacy levels below that which are expected of an 11-year-old. And having already had poor experiences of the education system, many prisoners are reluctant to engage with formalised education and training in the estate. And even if they do, a lack of standardisation in provision means that prisoners who start courses are often unable to finish them if they are transferred to a different prison.
This bleak picture has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Restrictions designed to control the spread of the virus meant that prisoners were forced to spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells whilst nearly all teaching, training and work-related activity was suspended, meaning many of those who are furthest from the labour market will have left custody without receiving any education or employment support.
But there is cause for optimism. ONS data shows that there is a record number of job vacancies in the UK, especially in sectors such as hospitality where employers are keen to recruit additional staff. And increasingly employers are recognising the value that recruiting from this talent pool can add to their business. James Timpson, the chief executive of the Timpson Group, stated ‘with a criminal record it’s hard to secure work, but we find that “returning citizens” are the most loyal, honest and hard-working colleagues of all.’
The Government is also taking welcome steps to get ‘prison leavers into work’ by establishing Employment Advisory Boards, groups of local business experts who will work with prisons to ensure their populations have the right skills and can access job opportunities upon release. Alongside this, the Government has committed to changing the law to allow prisoners at open prisons across England to apply for apprenticeships so they can ‘earn while they learn’ and directly access employment in the community.
Critically, there is significant public support for prisoner employment. A new poll of 2,000 UK adults commissioned by the Centre for Social Justice revealed that 85 per cent of respondents agree that prison leavers should be given an opportunity to get a job once released from custody, while three quarters of adults (76 per cent) would be comfortable working alongside an individual with a criminal record if they were qualified and had passed relevant safeguarding checks.
There is now a golden opportunity to level up the education, training and work offer that people in prison can access during their sentence. However, structural change is needed to enable person-centered provision that will cater for the needs of all prisoners. Whilst the scale and complexity of this challenge cannot be underestimated, the public, employers and the Government all recognise the importance of getting this right and prison leavers and wider society has so much to gain if we do.
And so we want to hear from you if you have experience of these issues – whether that’s delivering education or employability support in prisons or the community as a practitioner or frontline charity or as someone working in policy – to help inform our research and recommendations. We are seeking to develop and propose a bold new vision for prisoner employment which enables more prison leavers to unlock their potential and get life back on track.
Click here for the call for evidence – Deadline 22nd July 2022