Re-offending rates among prisoners in the UK are sky high. Around 90% of those sentenced in England and Wales have previous offences and the rates are, if anything, getting worse.
The direct link between employment and re-offending suggests that getting prisoners back into work once they have served their sentences plays an important role in tackling recidivism. The new justice secretary, Michael Gove, seems to have joined these dots. Outlining his strategy to break the cycle of re-offending, he has called for more education and more business partnerships in prisons. The idea being that prisoners who start working for companies while on the inside will be properly groomed for the labour market on the outside.
But the reality of the job market for ex-prisoners is bleak. Regardless of their skills, they face legalised discrimination and struggle to find work. A radical solution is required if we want to reduce the rates of re-offending and evidence from the US suggests this could lie in training up prisoners as businessmen.
Ex-offenders are hard placed to find employment when their sentences are over. Despite equality of opportunity in employment being the meritocratic mantra of the modern age, a key area not covered by the law is the discrimination faced by ex-offenders. A recent report by the employability service Working Links, Tagged for Life, is clear on the matter:
Conviction history remains one of the few areas where employers can legally discriminate against applicants when recruiting new employees.
Of course, there are particular convictions which would render a person unfit for certain types of work and would need to be made transparent in the application process. A child sex offender would, of course, not be fit to work alongside children. A person convicted of financial fraud would probably be unfit to run the accounts of a company.
But there are a growing number of people being imprisoned for minor offences such as petty theft, drug possession and even non payment of TV licenses. And the re-offending rates of prisoners released after short sentences of a year or less stands at almost 60%.
Without employment, the cycle of chronic re-offending in the UK continues. Home Office figures show that 75% of prisoners fail to secure employment on release from custody and 55% of offenders with community sentences are unemployed at the start of their orders. The modern, service-led, globally integrated British economy, it seems, has no need for ex-cons.
Meanwhile, the evidence about the role of employment in discouraging re-offending is compelling. Public policy researcher Mark Lipsey’s meta-analysis of 400 international research studies on young offenders singled out employment as the single most important factor in reducing re-offending. A UK government report showed that employment reduced re-offending by between a third and a half.
But there is a catch 22. The employment opportunities available to prisoners on release are not only limited by discrimination from would-be employers. They are also limited by the disproportionately poor educational and skill levels of ex-offenders. And there is further evidence that any work and skills training within prison has proven largely ineffectual in preparing inmates for a life of reintegration into the mainstream labour market. Sorry Mr Gove.
Breaking the cycle
One way to break this cycle is to help prisoners hone the skills to start their own businesses. Key to this idea is that the authorities do not treat prisoners or ex-offenders as a pariah underclass, suffering multiple forms of deprivation – or a “criminal precariat”. Policies toward prisoners and ex-offenders should embrace the entrepreneurial talent that exists in prisons.
Research into work and training provision in prisons suggests that prisoners do not necessarily view themselves as part of a criminal underclass or precariat. Interviews with more than 40 prisoners, spanning long and medium sentences, revealed that most identified themselves somewhere between belonging to the working class and their links to an entrepreneurial criminal class. Ironically, this meant they identified more with entrepreneurial capitalists than the exploited precariat.
Maybe the way ahead, therefore, is to treat prisoners less as criminals that need to be reformed and more as entrepreneurs. It’s conceivable to think of many prisoners (those in prison for drug offences for example or those dealing in other illicit markets such as counterfeit goods) as business people who happen to be dealing in high risk markets. Their entrepreneurial skills, honed in subterranean markets, need to be developed rather than discouraged through an exposure to the quotidian routines of manual work.
MBAs for prisoners
This “talent scouting” approach of trusting and even investing in people who have committed crimes may seem counterintuitive but it was tried out by Catherine Rohr, a former Wall Street analyst. Rohr visited Texas prisons as part of a Christian outreach programme and realised that many prisoners possessed the same sort of qualities she looked for when looking to invest in start-up companies.
In 2004, she founded the Houston-based Prison Entrepreneur Program – part faith-based project to reach out to the marginalised, part business venture to scout raw capitalist talent.
This being Texas – where the Bible and business are pillars of civilisation – the prison service welcomed Rohr’s God-meets-Dragon’s-Den approach to rehabilitating criminals. It is now a full-time project, which gives prisoners MBA-style classes in prison, helping them develop their business ideas and giving them practical skills in accounting, taxes, managing their cash flow, balance sheets and how to act professionally.
Evidence suggested that the programme has a positive impact. During its first five years, 500 prisoner students had graduated from the programme and around 60 had their own companies on leaving prison. When measured against the key performance indicator – re-offending – the results were, for Rohr, miraculous. The rate for her graduates was around 10%, which was significantly lower than the US average of 40%. Both the then president, George W. Bush, and Texas Governor, Rick Perry, honoured PEP’s public service achievement.
Arguably, if this form of entrepreneurial-led rehabilitation can happen in Texas, it can happen anywhere. In order to do so, however, it will require prisoners being seen less as criminals and more as risk-taking business owners. It requires the criminal justice system working against the in-built prejudices and structural discrimination faced by prisoners. For the evidence of life as a prisoner in Britain seems to echo what F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote about America: “There are no second acts in American lives.”