Businesses 'should help prisoners get work'
Major employers should give prisoners work experience placements and training and help more ex-offenders get work, Ken Clarke has said.
The justice secretary said firms like Virgin and Marks & Spencer could hire ex-offenders without damaging their reputation and values.
At a reception for companies in Downing Street later this month, he will argue that prisoners can be highly motivated.
Ministers are launching a new scheme to improve prisoners' job prospects.
"Introducing work experience and training to people who are serving their time and being punished in prison is altogether a more intelligent way of running the prison service," Mr Clarke said.
"If you just incarcerate people, if prison is just a warehouse in which you keep people and then release them without guidance into the world, it's hardly surprising that half of them will be back within 12 months, having committed more crime.
"Many prisoners do not want to be part of that cycle", he said.
Mr Clarke said: "We also stress to the businessmen that you can take part in this and derive benefits as a business and you don't have to compromise your ordinary standards of commercial judgment.
"I want eventually to see businesses manufacturing, providing services, from prisons on a commercial basis.
"There's no reason why they shouldn't help pay for themselves and the cost of the prison."
The government is working with the CBI to ensure that measures are put in place to guard against unfair competition with ordinary businesses, he added.
A new scheme, ONE3ONE Solutions, will replace the existing Prison Industries Unit.
Mr Clarke said there were 131 prisons across England and Wales where there was space for some sort of training and work-related experience.
More and more of the work prisoners do will be "normal household name firms actually doing it as part of their social responsibility and the running of their business," he said.
Prisons minister Crispin Blunt said: "We're trying to get towards a place where instead of work being part of the prison estate where it can be squeezed in among the security requirement, we will have work central to prison, and change the way we build security around that work."
'Just the job'
A Virgin Group spokesman said: "We believe the more productive people can be while they are in prison, the more they can develop their skills and the better their chances of rehabilitation and of succeeding and not reoffending on release."
The group's non-profit foundation Virgin Unite was "looking at how to increase the work opportunities in prisons, prior to and at the time of release", the spokesman added.
An M&S spokeswoman said the firm did not have a formal programme which targets ex-offenders but they can be referred to its Marks & Start scheme, which aims to support people who face barriers getting into work.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "Firms should follow the lead set by National Grid and Timpson who not only employ former offenders but have built up a loyal and skilled workforce by doing so."
But former prisoner Mark Leech, editor of the prisoners' newspaper Converse, said Mr Clarke's appeal "isn't enough".
"Simply telling employers to hire ex-offenders won't surmount their ingrained reluctance to do so.
"If Clarke is serious about this, he needs to provide incentives to employers, such as reduced employer's national insurance contributions for ex-offenders, to encourage the hiring of them," he said.