Viewpoints: Should prisoners have jobs?

HMP Oakwood
Image caption HMP Oakwood, where prisoners are paid to collect insurance details in call centres

Convicted criminals in the West Midlands are being paid to work in call centres for insurance firms. Should prisoners have jobs?

The inmates at HMP Oakwood, near Wolverhampton, and Drake Hall, in Staffordshire, are employed to carry out market research for insurance companies.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice said: "We prepare offenders for work inside prison so they can get a job after release - this reduces the chances that they will reoffend in the future, meaning lower crime and fewer victims."

Former Justice Minister Ken Clarke said in 2010 that prisoners should work 40-hour weeks while serving time.

Prisoners work in a variety of jobs such as packing plastic cutlery and headphones for airline passengers, running printing presses and making window frames.

But with unemployment at about 2.5 million people, some wonder whether these are jobs others can do.

Below are a range of perspectives about whether prisoners should have jobs.

Paul Nowak, assistant general secretary of the Trades Union Congress

The TUC has long supported the principle of constructive activity in prisons, for example offering training and education to help rehabilitate offenders. Prison officers and education staff play a crucial role in helping get offenders back on track and equipped for a life outside prison.

But we have real concerns about the government's efforts to expand the amount of work undertaken in prisons, particularly at a time of high unemployment.

As a guiding principle, the TUC believes that the government must be able to demonstrate that any work or contracts undertaken in prisons will not have detrimental impact on employment in the wider local community.

There is a real risk that without proper safeguards, the work done by prisoners will simply displace paid jobs in local communities. We cannot have a situation where young people are unable to find a job because work is being done in a nearby prison for a fraction of the cost.

Unscrupulous employers must not be allowed to exploit prison labour and transfer employment from our communities into prisons.

It's for this reason that the TUC has not signed up to the government's Code of Practice on Work in Prisons. We need further assurances from ministers that this scheme will be good for both prisoners and for local communities.

Frances Crook, director of Howard League for Penal Reform

Getting people in prison working is an exceptionally important part of turning them away from crime.

Many will have never held down a steady job in their lives; part of the reason so many return to crime on release.

It does no-one any good to have ably-bodied men laying around in a cell all day watching television.

But an honest day's work must come at an honest day's pay. If we want prisoners to see that crime doesn't pay then giving them a pittance and undercutting business in the community is not the answer.

Between 2005 and 2008, the Howard League ran the Barbed graphic design studio, Britain's first proper business inside prison. Our employees received the market rate for their work, paid tax, contributed to a victims fund and could save to support themselves and their families on release - rather than leaving the taxpayer to foot the bill.

Part of the problem is that there are far too many people behind bars to do anything useful with them, with the prison population having doubled in the past 20 years.

Getting people who have committed less serious crimes out of prison and onto community sentences, which help them into work, would free up resources to ensure those left inside got the support they need to turn their lives around.

Peter Cuthbertson, director of the Centre for Crime Prevention

For too long prisoners have spent a lot of their time in cushy idleness, so it's a good thing that the Ministry of Justice is putting prisoners to work.

But common sense about the kind of work prisoners do is important. Giving them potential access to people's financial details [through call centres] obviously puts the public at some risk.

A lot of people will find it creepy that the cold-calls they receive could be coming from a prison.

No risk assessment is perfect and the overwhelming majority of prisoners are serious, repeat offenders - this should be considered when deciding what work is appropriate.

It is encouraging when prison work schemes boast good results in cutting reoffending.

But that is often a result of them targeting people who have reached middle age and decided to go straight. It isn't much use in transforming the 20-year-old thug with a record of violence, burglaries and muggings.

We should always remember the proven way to cut both offending and reoffending is tougher sentencing. It protects the public for the duration of the sentence - and the longer a prison sentence, the lower the reoffending rate, even though tougher sentences are usually given to more serious offenders.

Karen Steadman, researcher at The Work Foundation

Imprisonment is not only to punish, but also to rehabilitate the offender - supporting their return to society after their sentence has been served.

Critical aspects of integration into "normal society" include, unsurprisingly, things that many of us see as entirely normal, such as a home and a job. However, only a small proportion of prisoners find employment after prison - 27% of men and 13% of women - and many become reliant on the benefits system.

Research on ex-prisoners showed half were claiming an out-of-work benefit at 12 months after release, with nearly three quarters claiming within two years of leaving prison. Ex-offenders are often also unemployed for a longer period of time than other claimants.

Though the reasons for this are multiple, including social exclusion, stigma, lower levels of education and work experience, and gaps in work history, the result is too often the same - a return to criminality.

Employment has been shown to reduce reoffending rates - it facilitates the creation of social links, provides a sense of stability, and provides an income - all of which reduce the likelihood of criminality.

Employment while in prison may have benefits for current prisoners, in terms of job practice, but also self-esteem and improving mental health.

However, without clear evidence of the long-term impacts on post-prison employment rates, it may be difficult to justify this scheme, particularly if it turns out that its main benefits lie in cost savings for the employing organisation. Reports that prisoners are earning just £20 per week imply considerable savings for the employer. Schemes like this need to be able to demonstrate where the benefits lie, and for whom.

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