Reducing reoffending by giving people decent work opportunities

Published:

Recycling Lives, CEO, Alasdair Jackson OBE​​​​

If you’d told me that a prison officer from HMP Kirkham walking into my office at a small scrapyard in Preston would be the start of something amazing, I’d have laughed at you. That officer had come in on the off chance that we’d be interested in taking some of his men on Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL). Effectively, working for us in the day to help their reintegration journey and then returning to the prison to eat and sleep after work. I wasn’t exactly sold on the idea given all the stigmas that exist around people in prison but, we needed workers, and the officer told me they’d be great. It was little more than they needed jobs, and we had vacancies, so we took a punt.

I quickly learned these lads were exactly what the officer had said – hard working, loyal, punctual. Everything you’d want in an employee. Sure, they had a background but who cares?

Fast forward a few years and we were in HMP Kirkham itself talking to the Governor about setting up a small recycling workshop. Again, no grand ideas really. We had TV dismantling work which needed doing but struggled for space and people to do it. Kirkham had both of those.

Our ethos from the start was that we wanted to recreate the real-life work environment as near as we possibly could. We put a bonus system in place where hard work was rewarded. Dossing was not an option. You can’t mess about in the outside world, so why would you be able to in a prison workshop?

We also listened carefully to what people were saying about needing money when they got released. So, we split the wages. 60% was given to the lads to spend inside but 40% was saved for their release. That meant, instead of just relying on a small discharge grant, they would be released with a few hundred or even over a thousand pounds to spend. Money they’d earned through their own hard work which could help their resettlement – deposits on accommodation, rent, travel to and from work, even buying presents for family. We noticed that this lifted the lads’ self-esteem as well as helping them reintegrate.

Soon, one small workshop with six lads became ten workshops in various prisons with a few hundred men and women working for us at a time.

The original idea of us employing all the leavers within the business soon hit a problem. We had too many people and not enough vacancies. So, we started to recommend our men and women to other companies and became advocates for them. It was difficult as the stigmas were still very prevalent, but it started to work.

We’d also quickly realised that just giving people work and money wasn’t enough. The men and women needed help with all sorts of issues ranging from basics like ID and bank accounts through to help with accommodation and other struggles with mental health, etc. So, we added key workers into our team to help with this. Those key workers quickly became a crucial part of the journey. Their job is to know the men and women and what their individual journey looks like. They work with them to enable them to be the best they can be.

Fast forward to 2024 and the programme has grown way beyond what I ever expected when we started out with that first ROTL lad. We do more now for people than we’ve ever done because, let’s face it, life is tough at the minute for the general population so it’s even tougher for someone leaving prison.

At our core though the fundamentals remain the same – start with hard work in the prison workshops. They need to be as close to real life workshops as possible. Create a real work ethic and self-esteem. Listen to the needs of each individual and don’t presume everyone fits into easy packages. Then tailor the support to those needs.

What have I learned?

  • Patience – prisons aren’t always the easiest places to work with but good communication and a willingness to compromise on both sides normally gets things done. It would have been easy to give up so many times, but the outcome of changing lives far outweighs the issue which crop up.
  • Push the boundaries – why settle for a “we’ve always done it this way” attitude? Challenge that and try new things. We do more now than we ever thought we could by being brave and trying stuff and not settling with being told “no”. Be innovative.
  • Listen to the people we work with – they know what they need so we shouldn’t always presume we know better.
  • Stick to your principles – ours are work ethic, self-esteem building, and never leaving any stone unturned in the journey to get people to be the best they can be.
  • Recruit on passion, not necessarily qualifications. This work is testing but super rewarding. In the tough times when things aren’t working quite how you want, the passion and attitude gets you through. The team we have is amazing at that.

I hope our experience and model is something others can learn from and implement more widely. I am looking forward to the day when all prison work is taking on our model and improving it. We need to push for longer working hours to match the outside world, better pay and saving schemes, more co-ordinated support pre and post release.

After all, the proof is in the pudding. Less than 5% of people we work with reoffend and over 70% are in full time employment within 6 months of leaving prison or less. If we can make that the norm rather than the exception, then we will be changing a lot of lives and society in general for the better.