Turning prisoners into entrepeneurs

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i’ve often wondered how societies can build a criminal justice system that finds the right balance between punishment and rehabilitation of those in its care. At the moment, there are 85,000 people in prison in England and Wales, and the vast majority of these prisoners will be released in a very short time.

But as far as numbers go, the prison system is doing a lousy job at ensuring people in prison stand even the slightest chance of becoming useful members of society again: more than 45 per cent of all current inmates reoffend within a year of being released, costing taxpayers an estimated £4.5 billion a year. Amongst those serving sentences of less than 12 months, the number jumps to 58 per cent.

Just imagine you are running a school, and nearly half your students, year after year, fail their final exams. When fault rates run that high in any organisation, the failure is a systemic one. And in this case, it runs along the entire spectrum of the prison system’s mandates: inadequate substance misuse treatment; lack of mental health services; insufficient or misdirected education and training opportunities; bureaucracy and red tape; disempowered governors and staff; and poor community relations.

Not too long ago, I had the pleasure of listening to a presentation by Lady Edwina Grosvenor, co-founder of theClink Charity, who has devoted her whole young life to prison reform and the reintegration of people with a criminal conviction into their families, their communities and the workplace.

Quoting one of her mentors, Edwina summed up the current challenge the prison system faces in just one simple question: “Do we want warehouses for the incorrigible, or greenhouses for the reformed?” At the moment, we are looking at the former. But the latter is possible and within reach.

I was very encouraged earlier this year to hear the Prime Minister’s announcement of a comprehensive plan for radical prison reform that will create the rehabilitative environment so urgently needed. Many observers agree that there has never been a greater window of opportunity for this to happen.

Of course, there are many pieces to the puzzle. Business must be part of the solution. Companies of all sizes and sectors must learn from the leadership of Timpson and Halfords in employing ex-offenders. What we need is a broad movement of Britain’s brands to step up to the plate and create greater opportunities for the disadvantaged. There is plenty of room for innovation and experimentation under the government’s reform agenda, including new, local partnerships to offer training and skill-building in prison, so that people have what they need to walk out the prison gate, into employment and a brighter future.

And of course, we must not forget that many of those currently in prison are fantastically entrepreneurial in their own right. Just today, a new report released by the Centre for Entrepreneurs makes a compelling case for self-employment to “be recognised as an effective pathway towards rehabilitation and reduced reoffending for many ex-prisoners”. The researchers found that entrepreneurship and self-employment could save taxpayers more than £1.4 billion, at a cost of no more than £82 million per year. That’s a phenomenal return on investment. And it could lead to 11,000 new businesses every year. Examples from Texas and Germany show how it can be done. To quote my fellow serial entrepreneur Luke Johnson: “Not introducing a prison entrepreneurship programme would be such a waste of both money and potential.”

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