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Karen Steadman
Senior Researcher
Karen Steadman

Prison inmates paid to work in the private sector but who really benefits?

Authors: Karen Steadman Karen Steadman

22 August 2013

Reports in the media yesterday (21st August) suggested that prisoners were being paid a rate of £20 per week to work in call centres. This is just one of many schemes which the Ministry of Justice confirmed that, if successful, could be rolled out nationwide. 

The purpose of imprisonment is not only to punish, but to protect the public and rehabilitate the offender - supporting their return to society after their sentence has been served. Critical aspects of integration into ‘normal society’ involves, unsurprisingly, the things that many of us see as entirely normal, such as a home and a job.

The fact is, however, that only a small proportion of prisoners manage to find employment after prison (27% of men and 13% of women), and many become reliant on the benefits system. Research shows that half of ex-prisoners were claiming an out-of-work benefit at the 12 month point after release, and that nearly three quarters of offenders claim an out-of-work benefit within two years of leaving prison, with around 30,000 former prisoners claiming Job Seekers Allowance within three months. It is estimated that ex-offenders will also be unemployed for a longer period of time than other claimants.

The reasons for this are multiple, and include social exclusion, stigma, low levels of skills, education and work experience, as well as gaps in work history. The result of this however, is often the same – a return to criminality. Evidence is clear that offenders with stable and high quality employment are less likely to reoffend[1]. Employment, among others things, facilitates the creation of social links, provides a sense of stability, and provides an income – all of which reduce the likelihood of criminality.

It is likely that employment will have benefits for current prisoners in the program, for example in terms of self-esteem and improving mental health. However, without clear evidence of the long-term impacts on post-prison employment, in terms of return to work, it may be difficult to justify this scheme, particularly if it turns out that the main benefits of this scheme are in cost savings for the employing organisation.

In order effectively assess whether schemes like this  work for the benefit of prisoners, they must be open, accountable and evaluated in order to demonstrate where the benefits lie, and for whom.

[1] Healy, D. (2010) ‘The Dynamics of Desistance: Charting Pathways through Change’ Cullompton: Willan

An edited version of this appeared on the BBC News online website.