Could prisoner work plans take jobs from unemployed?

Prisoner at cell window
Image caption The government wants thousands of prisoners working full time in jail

The government wants outside companies to more than double the number of jobs available in prison industries. Is this possible? And if it is, does it risk taking work away from law-abiding jobseekers?

The Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has won praise from all sides for his plan for "regime change" in English and Welsh prisons, making them into places of hard work and reform.

That is certainly not the reality for most prisoners now.

Just look at the statistics - there are 87,000 inmates and just 9,000 full-time jobs in prison industries.

Thousands more are employed in cleaning, cooking and other in-house occupations.

But for tens of thousands of prisoners, daily life consists of little more than sitting in a cell with two other convicts, smoking and watching daytime television.

Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform thinks this is a poor return for the taxpayer on a prison place costing £41,000 a year.

"There are 30,000 adult men serving long sentences and they spend years, sometimes decades, wearing pyjamas and pottering about as if it's an old people's home. It is completely purposeless," she says.

For thousands on shorter sentences, too, there is little activity to promote Mr Clarke's aim of reform - encouraging them to go straight.

More than half the prisoners released are re-convicted within a year and for some prisons, the figure is almost three-quarters.

So the government wants there to be a 40-hour working week for a growing number of inmates, with jobs that will teach them (perhaps for the first time) the habit of getting up in the morning and putting in a full day's work.

They may also learn skills that could make them more employable when they are released. Getting a job outside is linked to a lower chance of re-offending.

Ken Clarke puts it like this: "If you want less crime you've got to have fewer criminals, and that includes reforming a few of the criminals we have got inside by re-introducing them - or introducing them - to an honest day's work."

'Pie in the sky'

At the moment, many prisoners work part-time every week in a range of industries.

They stitch prison uniforms, pack plastic cutlery and headphones for airline passengers, work in laundries, run printing presses and make window frames.

It is this kind of work that Ken Clarke wants to see grow. His target is to increase the number of full-time prison industry jobs from 9,000 to 20,000 by the end of the decade.

Image caption Ken Clarke has praised the work programme at HMP Altcourse in Merseyside

But here is the problem - building workshops costs money.

One prison governor told File on 4 that the estimate for upgrading the electricity supply in his Victorian prison to accommodate more work was £300,000, which was simply not impossible in the current environment.

Since prison budgets are being cut, the justice secretary will depend on private companies coming in to set up workshops and create his 11,000 new jobs.

The model he praised in his conference speech this year was a metal workshop in a private jail in Fazakerley on Merseyside, HM Prison Altcourse.

But the assistant secretary of the Prison Officers Association (POA), Joe Simpson, says that Ken Clarke's idea of a 40-hour working week for many prisoners is "pie in the sky".

The normal prison regime could not make that much time available without an increase in staff, which is not on the cards.

"He is asking the impossible," he says.

Nonetheless, at HMP Altcourse they have found a way to make it happen. Inmates in the metal workshop, run by an external entrepreneur, work for 41.5 hours per week with only 30 minutes for lunch.

They drill and weld steel frames for office furniture which is sold outside. Along the way they acquire skills and gain NVQs which could prove valuable after their release.


For their working week, prisoners are paid up to £28 - about one-eighth of the minimum wage if this work were being conducted outside.

The business pays the jail's management more than this, with a supplement to cover premises, prison staffing and security at the workshop. It still represents a considerable saving on rates outside.

So how does the businessman running the scheme, David Norburn, answer concerns that he is using the prison as a source of cheap labour and taking away much-needed work from honest job-seekers?

"All these products would have been imported from India," he says. "We are winning that business back. We want to be commercial but have ethics."

He qualifies this slightly, insisting that 90% of the work in the prison would be done abroad if it were not for HMP Altcourse.

The remaining jobs are in building prototypes, which might be done locally, but then mass production would again go overseas.

Whether the entire expansion of prison industries can be achieved at the expense of foreign workers is unclear.

Ken Clarke has a ministerial working group urgently examining the principles and practicalities of prison work.

He knows only too well the power of a hostile headline, and his plans could struggle to survive a succession of front pages featuring newly-redundant factory workers whose jobs had been taken at cheap rates by convicted criminals.

"I am ultra-sensitive about the fact that I do not want to threaten some small business where we put law-abiding people out of work," he says.

"I don't think we can possibly exploit prison labour as just cheap labour."

But being sensitive about a problem is not the same as solving it.

The justice secretary and the business people advising him have to wrestle with this conundrum: if prisons are not going to offer cheap labour, why would private companies want to build workshops inside them?

File on 4 is on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 1 November at 20:00 GMT and Sunday 6 November at 17:00 GMT. Listen again via the Radio 4 website or download the podcast.

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