The need to make prisons places of hard work and meaningful employment is set out in the Government’s new Green Paper on justice reform.
Prison Industries are meeting the challenge by linking up with companies in the private sector.
One of these is Timpson - the UK’s largest shoe repairer, key cutter, engraver and watch repairer. Timpson’s 2,400-strong workforce includes 89 ex-offenders who trained at the company’s prison workshops.
James Timpson is Managing Director of Timpson, and believes that prison works for his company as well as for the former prisoners on his payroll. And as a result, he’s always looking for his next ‘superstar’ employee.
‘I find the staff we’ve recruited from prisons are among the best colleagues we’ve got,’ James says. ‘We see this as a great way of not only helping people but of getting people to work for us.
‘We simply recruit people who we feel deserve a chance,’ he adds. ‘I think the best way to avoid people going back to prison is to give them a good job.’
Training on the job
James’ relationship with Prison Industries started eight years ago when he recruited a young offender who impressed him during a visit to HMYOI Thorn Cross.
‘When he was released I gave him a trial and he’s been with us ever since and now ex-offenders make up about four per cent of our staff,’ he says.
Since then, James has worked with prison industries to set up special training workshops for offenders. A workshop opened two years ago at HMP Liverpool and it’s been a great success.
‘Today we have 12-14 prisoners being trained there at any one time, and on release we guarantee them a trial period with Timpson,’ James explains. ‘In 2009 we opened a second Timpson workshop at HMP Wandsworth, which like Liverpool operates every weekday. We also have a prison industry at HMP Forest Bank, where prisoners do welting, which is part of the shoe repair process.’
And does he feel these workshops have been successful so far?
‘Well, 75 per cent of staff who join us from prison are still with us after six months. We’ve got shops everywhere - 900 across the country - so we’re very flexible about where people work. Some prisoners want to work in their home areas, while others want to be far away from where they come from, and we have the flexibility to help in both circumstances.’
Room for expansion
The success of the workshops has led to plans to train prisoners in other areas of the Timpson empire.
A photo processing business as part of the Max Spielmann chain (owned by Timpson) at women’s prison HMP New Hall has already been approved and is in the planning stages. It will give the women who take part confidence and skills, and as in male prison workshops, they will be offered a trial job on release.
‘The business is growing very quickly so I always have room for more staff,’ James says.
‘I’m starting to recruit ex-offenders for other retailers as well, so in the future all the jobs might not be for us specifically, but we’ll still be providing jobs in retail. I think the whole corporate agenda is moving towards this approach. Social enterprise is now becoming much more relevant, it’s seen as something that’s good for the business, but also good for society.’
In the eight years he’s been involved in working with prison industries, James admits there have been some hiccups.
‘We’ve had to let people go sometimes - we give people a chance but we don’t take any messing,’ he says.
But the cases that don’t work out are clearly outweighed by those that do. He cites the example of an ex-offender from Liverpool who had never worked in his life and had problems with drugs and alcohol.
‘He was 47, and had been in prison for 28 years on and off. He’s been with us for two years, and he keeps his monthly pay slips on a board to show the months he’s been out of prison. He’s great.’
Ex-offender Sarah is another shining example of how employment can help rehabilitate offenders.
‘She served a five year sentence before joining us, then became runner up in our Apprentice of the Year 2009 competition,’ James says. ‘She’s about to start managing a shop and everyone thinks she’s absolutely wonderful.’
And with successes stories like this behind him, James believes his business contemporaries would do well to join forces with Prison Industries.
‘I would say that if you’re in the business of wanting good people to work for you, you would be wise to look for talent in strange places, and one of those places may be prisons because from our experience, we’ve found lots of superstars there.’
How we reduce reoffending to improve public safety is going to change. Have your say in the Green Paper consultation: ‘Breaking the cycle: effective punishment, rehabilitation and sentencing of offenders.’