Work must be the centre of prison life

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At The Clink Charity, we are passionate about giving as many people in prison as possible access to work-based vocational training so that they have a good base from which to plan a future free of offending.  Last year, we trained about 850 people across the prison estate and awarded over 500 City and Guilds qualifications to our students.  What works for our students is that they are coming to work. Every day. They have a structured working day whether they are in a Clink restaurant, garden, bakery, staff mess or Clink kitchen. We don’t simulate a work environment – we ARE a work environment.  Our trainees undergo a screening interview to assess motivation, potential, aspiration; they have Clink branded workwear, they have structured breaks and they work as part of a team.  These attributes help with their wellbeing as well as developing considerable professional skills rewarded by industry-recognised qualifications achieved on the job.

With the pressure on prisons and shortages of staff in many establishments, it is often challenging to provide a full working day experience. In our public facing restaurants, we are often faced with our workforce being depleted due to conflicting calls on their time. We would like to see real work recognised as such in prisons with vital activities such as showers, association and gym fitting around the working day rather than being programmed in the middle of it.

If work was central to prison life and employment was widely seen as a benefit by prisoners, we believe it would change the dynamics of the establishment for the better.

There are many misconceptions about the attractiveness of work to people in prison. The assumption from those who do not work in the system is that people in prison should be grateful for the opportunity, that they should be sanctioned if they don’t want to work, that they are getting “free” training in many cases. This overlooks the reality of what the person in prison feels about prison work.  They can feel exploited due to low prison wages. They can feel anxious that by going to work they will miss out on other activities that are programmed during the day, or that they will be unable to contact their families in the brief association window before evening lock up as they will get back later than their peers.

Employee wellbeing and work/life balance is at least as important in prison employment as it is in general employment. Unlike those of us who can make choices about when we phone our friends, when we go for a walk, wash our hair, or visit the doctor, people in prison have to do all of those things in a very short day. Unlock is later than it used to be, and evening lock up is earlier. There is a lot to fit in and work uses up a great deal of their available time. This may come as a surprise to people unfamiliar with prisons but is a real barrier to putting work at the centre of prison life.

A further challenge is prison wages. Whilst there are national guidelines, there is also local discretion. This results in establishment priorities dictating rates of pay so, for example, if attendance at education is valued more highly than attendance at work in the prison and prison wages are consequently at different rates, people in prison see this as unfair as they earn less for working than for being in a classroom.

We would advocate that.

  • Work inside prisons should be remunerated at a higher rate than other paid prison activities.
  • Work inside prison for commercial organisations should be paid in accordance with employment law and subject to tax, NI and victim surcharge deductions.
  • Prison employment should be recognised and measured as part of the wider economy, including tax, NI and victim surcharge deductions paid by prisoners working outside of prisons.
  • The prison regime should recognise the working day restrictions of working prisoners and make facilities available to support their needs outside of the working day.
  • Opportunities for appropriate release on temporary license employment should be offered to all eligible prisoners.

The Clink Charity works in 40 prisons in England and Wales. Their trainees working on temporary release (ROTL) are paid a living wage whilst training and working towards their NVQ qualifications in hospitality. Trainees working in closed conditions are paid in accordance with the establishment rates.