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Ex-offenders: The solution to the skills crisis?

The Ministry of Justice wants ex-offenders to enter construction as it tries to reduce re-offending rates. But what exactly is being done and can it be successful? Lucy Alderson visits HMP Brixton to find out more.

Samir has taken meticulous care decorating his training booth.

Roughly 2 m x 2.5 m with a mock window located on the back wall, the booth has been covered in a beige, floral wallpaper. His handiwork has been assessed as part of his CSkills Level 1 Painting and Decorating qualification, and he is proudly exhibiting the fruits of his labour to me.

“I got a distinction for this,” he grins, gesturing at the walls around him.

Taking a closer look, I appreciate the finish. The wall is smooth and free from any lumps or bumps. I wonder how many hours of practice Samir has put into perfecting his wallpaper-pasting technique.

I also can’t help but wonder how the size of this booth compares with his prison cell.

I’m at HMP Brixton, where roughly 300 prisoners undergo training each year in one of five construction courses: painting and decorating; drylining; scaffolding; health and safety; and CSCS. Bounce Back, a charity and training organisation, co-ordinates the programme and each year approximately 240 prisoners will leave with a construction qualification under their belt.

HMP Brixton is one of 75 prisons around the country that offered construction training courses to offenders in the 2017/18 academic year, and the Ministry for Justice is pushing harder than ever to engage with the industry.

In its Education and Employment strategy published in May 2018, the MoJ outlined its plans for reducing re-offending, which costs the country around £15bn a year. The report identified construction as a priority sector where the demand for workers was high – a situation that will potentially be exacerbated by Brexit.

But what exactly are prisons doing to prepare inmates for life in the construction workforce – and can these efforts succeed?

Filling the gap

According to the MoJ’s estimates, roughly 2,000 prisoners took part in construction training courses during the 2017/18 academic year.

These schemes have been designed to teach the most in-demand industry skills. For example, bricklaying is one of the courses offered at prisons across the country to respond to the skills gap in this trade.

An Office for National Statistics employment survey published in May found 80 per cent of main contractors reported difficulties in recruiting bricklayers in Q1 2018. More than half (56 per cent) were struggling to find plasterers and 76 per cent were having trouble hiring carpenters. Courses in all of these trades are available in many prisons across the country.

Responding to the industry’s need for specific skills is important for organisations like Bounce Back, its chief executive Fran Findlater explains, so that prisoners have the best chance of getting a job after their release. 

“We make sure we are responding to what the construction industry needs so that we can provide training for those most-needed skills,” she says, adding that the organisation talks regularly with major construction companies in order to stay informed. Each year, Bounce Back aims to train 300 people at Brixton, 85 per cent of whom will come out with a construction qualification.

Painting HMP Brixton prison prisoners

Painting HMP Brixton prison prisoners

The Bounce Back programme includes a painting and decorating course

Nearly 100 miles away from HMP Brixton on the outskirts of Rugby, HMP Onley is offering an even greater variety of courses. There are 14 types of construction qualification prisoners can choose from, including bricklaying, health and safety and a diploma in precast and pre-stressed concrete operations.

However, HMP Onley governor Matthew Tilt says both the industry and the prison system could “be better” at getting trainees into employment.

“There’s a great opportunity there,” he says. “It may be that the prison service has been insular and not focusing on getting trainees strong employment options on release. Both us and construction employers in general could do more. But it feels like the prison service has really been reaching out over the past six months and has put in a real effort into getting this message across: we have a good potential workforce here that we can train.”

Construction seems to be responding to this greater engagement, according to HMP Brixton head of reducing re-offending Graham Horlock – especially with Brexit on the horizon. He says he is “constantly hearing” concerns from the construction industry about its ability to fill the growing void of vacancies. “People are waking up to the idea that there is an untapped workforce that, with the right training, can be given a second chance,” he says.

Stigma

HMP Brixton’s painting and decorating programme is on the front line of preparing this potential workforce for employment.

The training area feels no different to any other construction worksite. A group of young men, many in their late teens or early 20s, are gathered round a workbench, discussing the day’s tasks.

One trainee, Emmanual, holds a paint scraper in one hand as he stands on a stepladder’s lower rung, busily decorating his booth that is set to undergo assessment. This is his fifth week on the Bounce Back scheme.

“Since I’ve come here, it’s like I’ve found my path. I was doing different stuff out on the streets and I never had a legit job. But since I’ve come here, I’ve found something that I actually like”

Emmanuel, HMP Brixton

“Painting and decorating wasn’t what I planned to do before I came to prison,” he says. “But since I’ve come here, it’s like I’ve found my path. I was doing different stuff out on the streets and I never had a legit job. But since I’ve come here, I’ve found something that I actually like.”

He finishes his course on Boxing Day this year, and says he is “definitely” looking into starting a career in construction after he’s served his time at HMP Brixton.

However, many inmates like Emmanual struggle to secure jobs after they have come out of prison. Only 17 per cent of ex-offenders manage to get a job on release, according to MoJ statistics, and many of these are part-time or very low-wage roles.

One explanation for these figures is the stigma associated with ex-prisoners, says HMP Onley’s Mr Tilt. “It’s going to be that bit harder for an ex-offender to get a job over someone else who has the same qualifications,” he says.

One way of breaking down preconceptions is to welcome companies into prisons, inviting them to have a “frank and honest discussion” about how inmates could be incorporated into workplaces upon release, HMP Brixton’s Mr Horlock suggests. “There is still a mystery that surrounds people who are in prison,” he says. “Part of our job is to engage with potential employers and help break down those barriers.”

Challenges in retention?

Although roughly 2,000 prisoners across the country took part in construction courses for the 2017/18 academic year, there is a lack of information to assess how successful these schemes have been in practice.

When CN asked for the number of prisoners who had gained a construction qualification, and the number who had secured an industry job after being released, the MoJ said it was unable to provide any figures.

However, anecdotal evidence suggests the prison system’s efforts have met with some degree of success.

Scaffolding specialist Alandale has worked closely with Bounce Back for more than three years, and its managing director David Bulman says the programme has been a “win-win for everyone”.

Bounce Back offers prisoners 12 weeks of scaffolding training at HMP Brixton and Isis Prison in south-east London. Alandale provides all the scaffolding equipment to both prisons and pays for all the equipment checks. If trainees successfully complete their training, Alandale guarantees them an opportunity to get a job in the business.

“The model is perfect for us,” Mr Bulman says. “We give them [prisoners] the opportunity to get education, training and upskilled. We selfishly have a captive audience where we can gain badly needed people […] it’s a win-win.”

Mr Bulman estimates Alandale takes on around 25-50 scaffolders from the programme each year. Of the scaffolders Alandale has taken on since the company got involved in the programme, Mr Bulman says the vast majority stay within the industry, estimating that only 5-10 per cent of scaffolders leave construction altogether.

“We give them [prisoners] the opportunity to get education, training and upskilled. We selfishly have a captive audience where we can gain badly needed people […] it’s a win-win”

David Bulman, Alandale (scaffolding specialist)

Based on his experience, he says the ex-offenders Alandale has taken on enjoy what they do and have broken the cycle of re-offending. “It seems to be working really well,” he says. “We haven’t had any major bad experiences at all – it’s been the opposite, despite the stigma that might exist in the industry [concerning ex-offenders].”

However, other companies such as Lee Marley Brickwork have had less success using similar prison training programmes. The company was involved in a year-long scaffolding programme around five years ago, but the scheme eventually “fizzled out”, according to managing director Lee Marley.

“I think the programme was a new venture for both parties,” he says, adding that the company had mixed experiences on the scheme. “It really depends on the individuals, the programme you’re with, and how ready [ex-offenders] are to work. Individual cases could be a success or a failure – if it’s a failure, it’s a nightmare.”

He says one individual who the business took on from the programme re-offended during his time with the company. “You have got to get the right amount of vetting to get the right individual into the business” he says. “But as a business, we are open to helping the right individuals get back into work.”

He adds: “I would reconsider the programme, as long as we were engaged more early on.”

Risk and reward

As Mr Marley’s experience suggests, companies can face unique challenges when incorporating ex-offenders into their businesses. However, research suggests that education programmes do reduce the likelihood of prisoners re-offending.

Analysis by market research organisation Ipsos Mori, carried out on behalf of the MoJ and the Department for Education in 2015, showed that offenders who participated in education programmes were 7.5 percentage points less likely to re-offend within 12 months of release.

Keltbray believes the benefits of taking on ex-offenders outweigh the risks. The specialist contractor was approached by Latchmere prison (which has since closed down) seven years ago, enquiring whether there were any opportunities for prisoners to go on day-time work placements within the company.

HMP Brixton exterior 6

HMP Brixton exterior 6

“We did have to ask ourselves where the risk lies,” says Keltbray director of training and development Holly Price. “If someone was in [prison] because of a drugs issue, then potentially that was something that could have been introduced [into the business]. We also asked ourselves whether there was a risk to our assets and equipment.”

However, she says these concerns have not been an issue. “What you’re doing is providing someone with an opportunity, so they’re not having to commit crime anymore. When you give someone sustainable employment, treat them respectfully and when they have somewhere to live, the likelihood of them re-offending reduces significantly.”

So far this year, 118 people have been referred to Keltbray from prison programme co-ordinators. Of those, five people have been employed by the business and Keltbray are talking to 54 others yet to be released about future opportunities.

Take a chance

Back at HMP Brixton, a morning’s work on the painting and decorating course is drawing to a close.

Samir says he’s grateful for not just the skills he has learned under the Bounce Back programme, but the confidence it has given him too. He proudly tells me he has a 100 per cent attendance record and comes in every day. “It gives me something to look forward to,” he says.

At 11.30am, it’s time for me to leave. I say goodbye to Samir and he offers a handshake, wishing me well as I leave the workshop. A giant steel door criss-crossed by bars is locked firmly shut behind me.

As I walk out of HMP Brixton, I wonder whether Samir and Emmanual will be one of the 17 per cent of prisoners given a job on release from prison – and an opportunity to turn their lives around in the outside world. 

Is HMP Brixton building an HS2 skills pipeline?

HMP Brixton is “actively seeking” a partner to set up a rail training facility on disused space within the prison grounds, according to its head of reducing re-offending Graham Horlock.

He says the prison is “very interested” in working with the construction industry. “Some of the research we’ve done shows a lot of work is being done in rail,” Mr Horlock says, adding that Network Rail currently provides practical and theoretical training in rail skills at other prisons, including rail maintenance and track laying.

“We believe we have space here which would be useful to them [Network Rail],” he says, adding the prison is eager to engage with the wider rail sector. “We don’t have a set model in mind, but we’re encouraging people to come to Brixton with ideas and whether it would work with the space we have available.”

HS2 and Crossrail would be the types of infrastructure clients the prison would hope to engage in the programme, Mr Horlock says. “What we need first is to get a facility to train prisoners in those skills so they can work in the rail environment – be it on HS2 or [underground] lines.”

Mr Horlock says the prison was hoping to partner with a company that would invest in building a rail training facility in exchange for getting “first dibs” on those workers trained under the programme.

HMP Brixton is currently negotiating funding for the initiative with the MoJ. Mr Horlock estimates that the prison will know whether it has secured the necessary funds for the initiative by February 2019. The prison would then start to look at the security requirements needed to extend the prison.

Mr Horlock believes contractors using prisons as training facilities represents an “excellent concept”, and could help prisoners secure jobs while reducing re-offending.

  • Drylining HMP Brixton prison prisoners

    Ex-offenders: The solution to the skills crisis?

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