On Monday 19th February, researchers held an event on the issue of employment and employability in Scottish prisons. The event was organised by SCCJR’s Laura Piacentini, Beth Weaver and Cara Jardine (all School of Social Work and Social Policy, University of Strathclyde) and consisted of three guest speakers, all of whom had different perspectives on the role of employment for prisoners who are employed within a prison.
Employment in prison has been conceptualised in a wide range of conflicting reforms including; as additional punishment, a source of income for the prison system or private industry, enforcing security, a means of passing time, or as a way to reduce prison upkeep and maintenance costs (Piacentini, Weaver and Jardine, 2018, p.1).
The event offered three perspectives on the role, efficacy and effects of employability programmes in prisons. Laura began by discussing background facts about prison and those in prison. It costs approximately £34 k/year to keep someone in prison and the justice sector has an annual £3 billion budget.
She spoke of the loss of potential when someone is imprisoned and whilst the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) promotes purposeful activity, there may be claims of exploitation where the employment opportunities are mostly manual, low paid and basic, and questioning the usefulness of this when a person leaves prison and looks for employment on the ‘outside’.
After this introduction, Laura introduced Teresa Medhurst, Director of Strategy and Innovation for the Scottish Prison Service (SPS), who discussed the SPS’s purposeful activity strategy including prison-based employment, educational and vocational training in Scotland.
This ‘includes work, education, physical education, counselling and other rehabilitation programmes, vocational training, work placements outside prison, and any activity which is designed to assist the prisoner’s re-integration into the community following release’ (p.6).
Teresa argued that employment in prison promotes well-being, citizenship, employability prospects upon release, life skills and resilience. This is achieved by engaging with prisoners to address their needs and help deliver opportunities and positive outcomes for them and in turn encourages desistance whilst developing and building community assets. The Organisational Review also aimed to take account of the need to align prison and community support and activities as well as access to universal services (p.7).
Next up, Professor Douglas Brodie, Executive Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Strathclyde, discussed the worker rights of prisoners. Under UK law workers in prison are not employees; they have no entitlements and no pension. This lack of recognition is reinforced with some comparing prison labour to slavery (p.10).
Prison work is often poorly paid with prisoners in Scotland earning approximately £5-£12 per week and it has been observed that the average prison wage is less than the average child earns in ‘pocket money’. This contrasts with other EU countries for example, Italian Laws ‘specify that prisoners should be paid two thirds of the national contract with deductions made for subsistence, and they also receive holidays and social security’ (p.10).
The final speaker was Matt Fountain, owner of Freedom Bakeries, a business that has forged links with the SPS offering training at Low Moss prison in the skills of baking. Freedom Bakeries has two work placements on day release from prison as well as employing a former prisoner. Whilst it sounded a good idea in practice, it is still people working in a real job but not for real pay.
After a short break the audience split into three groups to take part in breakout sessions discussing our views on the issues, opportunities and challenges for innovation faced by prisons with regards to supporting employment and employability.
There were many views offered but there appeared consensus that prison-based work required reform, as well as there being a lack of qualitative research in Scotland. The primary concern for employment opportunities in prison is security; whilst this is understandable to a degree, ideally it should have some linked relevance to employability once a person has been released. Training and employment within prison is most often low-skilled, repetitive, pays ‘pocket money wages’ and has little connection to the local labour market (p.14).
Whilst links with employers should be welcomed, they must be carefully scrutinised to ensure there is no element of exploitation. Employment must be reframed, for example, as social enterprises or co-ops, as such schemes may be more likely to support successful re-integration and desistance on a long-term basis.
The Employment and Employability in Scottish Prisons project, funded by the SCCJR, explores the association between unemployment and offending and how the Scottish Prison Service addresses the need for, and right to, employability and employment. A research briefing paper by Laura Piacentini, Beth Weaver and Cara Jardine (all University of Strathclyde) can be found on SCCJR’s website.