Smelling the ethanol

May 16, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Recovery 

The links between alcohol consumption and offending are well-documented, at least at a topline level. Over a fifth of prisoners surveyed in 2012 reported an alcohol problem when they began their sentence (a survey which was likely to underestimate the prevalence of alcohol problems among offenders due to under-reporting and recognition of problems), and an earlier survey in 2010 found that three fifths of those entering prison with an alcohol problem would also leave with one.

This week the RSA asked how we might break the cycle of alcohol-related criminal behaviour. Informing the debate was a new survey from Addaction’s Alcohol and Crime Commission, which found that almost two fifths of respondents believed they had a ‘big drinking problem’, with almost three-quarters of them (some 25% of all respondents) reporting that they had been drinking at the time of committing the offence for which they were sentenced.

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Prisoners in work: a broadcast to the nation

April 18, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

Sunday’s episode of Channel 4’s Secret Millions series focused on a venture supported by RSA Catalyst. Led by Fellows, it aims to reduce reoffending by making offenders more employable: manufacturing and assembling quality furniture during the time that is often spent sitting in cells and being unemployed on release. The venture was selected by the RSA’s Social Entrepreneurs Network to be part of their Spotlight initiative and it also made perfect sense to me that this was the first Catalyst-funded idea to make it onto primetime television:

The size of the problem

Recent figures published by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) (1) underlines the positive impact that securing a job on release can have on reoffending rates – they are lowered by more than 50% if employment is found upon release among those serving short term (less than 12 month) prison sentences. A previous MOJ survey found that 68% of prisoners said having a job was the biggest factor in helping them to stop offending (2).

Secret Millions

While some employers such as Virgin, M&S and Greggs have taken a lead in employing offenders, many employers remain nervous, often irrespective of the nature of their crime, their skills-set and real (rather than perceived) risks. This will at some point affect the almost 100,000 prisoners in the UK and the roughly 1.25m benefit claimants and 0.5m JSA recipients who have been cautioned or convicted (3). Their difficulty in finding a job will also increase as the labour market moves online (difficult to access in prisons).

The programme brushed over the difficulty of negotiating the bureaucracy of the prison service when helping prisoners to get employability skills through work in prisons:

  • As Kate Welch (one of the two RSA Fellows who co-founded the venture in the programme, Reap & Sow) explained, owing to the responsibility that a Governor has over an individual prison, expanding a social enterprise would take considerable time persuading each Governor;
  • There are also problems in that the longest a working day is allowed to be in many prisons is 5 hours long. Even those hours are restricted by staff shortages and emergencies/searches. This Howard League publication discusses some of the institutional barriers in more detail;
  • Selecting the right people who have the skills for the job can take time. And getting the data on how they do upon release is also not easy – as a Fellow voiced at a recent Social Entrepreneurs Network event.

Some of these barriers are reducing as government sees it as more of a priority to “Make Prisons Work.” 

(Presenter:) It’s a product with a conscience, do you think that’s a selling point?”

(Furniture retailer:) “To have a strong story behind a product is always very good”

(P:) “We were looking to sell it for about £1000…”

(FR:) “I think that’s feasible”

(P:) “How would you feel about having this in your shop. Is that something you would consider?”

(FR:) “Definitely”

Turning problems into opportunities

It was genuinely encouraging to see that some key elements of the social enterprise these Fellows wanted to test appeared to be viable. The furniture retailer interviewed signalled that the £1000 price-tag for the furniture was commercially-viable. The retailer also said that the social side of the enterprise – it was helping turn around the lives of the offenders – was a selling point. This echoed with what I heard from the CEO of Blue Sky Development. They have employed more than 500 ex-offenders since 2005 and 60% of the business is funded by delivering commercial work (4), in which he said firms are keen to take part.

Not only can the “turning-around-lives” line help sell products, but it also helps reduce some of the costs of producing them. Reap & Sow made use of the RSA Fellowship’s cultural partnership with Northumbria University to get students and designers in residence at arguably the top design school in the country to do the designs (helped along by our Catalyst grant award).

One interesting dimension comes in the form of studies that show ex-offenders display more entrepreneurial traits than average. It is this kind of evidence, when combined with problems set out above that has informed the RSA’s Transitions project, which is working with a prison in Yorkshire to test a new approach. It is aiming to provide prisoners and ex-offenders with resettlement services alongside opportunities for work and skills development both in custody employing ex-offenders on site and on release, with the assumption that some people will become ‘sole traders’ but will need support on developing their business, while others will go into employment but will sometimes need additional support. (Here’s a recent post from our Chief Exec on its importance and progress.)

There have already been smaller-scale successes by focusing on self-employment: Startup has supported 230 clients into self-employment and their clients have a re-offending rate of under 5% (5). Baillie Aaron FRSA set up Venturing Out which helping offenders plan micro-enterprises in prison. She now runs Spark Inside, who provide life coaching to young offenders before and after they leave prisons. Spark Inside believes that coaching can help ex-offenders break down long-term goals into small steps; for example how to use what might at first look like a dead-end low-paid job to build up the sufficient skills and capital needed to launch a business.

The RSA as a Catalyst

Many start-ups fail and we don’t expect every project that we support through Catalyst to become a gigantic social enterprise. Reap & Sow has been put on hold because of a breakdown in the working relationship of the two Fellows who co-founded it (which is why you never heard the words “Reap & Sow” and the programme is quite unclear where the idea came from, whether it was via Acumen Trust or Katie Piper herself). But given the success of the first batch of production both for the ex-offenders and the response from retailers the Fellows are looking to make tweaks to the model and set up new vehicles to take it forward.

As well as supporting the success of individual ventures, we hope that Catalyst-funded ventures offer lessons to others trying to tackle a similar social problem. Getting the venture’s concept out to a primetime audience of at least a million will inspire others to run something similar and increase the demand for products made by ex-offenders.

There are some fascinating stories in the programme, not least the attitudes of the presenter who was herself a victim of serious crime. You’ve got 26 days to watch it and if I haven’t persuaded you, I’ll let Dostoyevsky: “The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.”

If you want to get in touch with Kate Welch, you can do so via

RSA Transitions is doing a feasibility study to deliver a site next to HMP Everthorpe. If you are interested in finding out more see here or get in touch with Rachel O’Brien

Alex Watson is Catalyst Programme Manager at the RSA. He is also a volunteer member of the Independent Monitoring Board of a London prison – follow him @watsoalex

Transitioning to a new life: recovery & rehabilitation

November 8, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Recovery 

Massive overcrowding, high rates of re-offending, and an estate largely built for a Victorian-variety punishment and retribution. Not the most stable of foundations on which to build a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ or even the watered down proposal for working prisons. They’re not new challenges either. But the responses are getting interesting!

I’m sure we all have our own idea about what prisons are for, usually falling within the trusty ideals of punishment, retribution or rehabilitation. Thankfully recent focus has been on the latter of these three. As our Chief Exec says “the government has been brave; there are few votes to be won when it comes to prison policy. Yet, it announced its rehabilitation revolution and, in its emphasis on work, recognised the futility of locking prisoners in their cells all day.”

Rehabilitation is about transitioning to a new life with improved well-being, greater participation in society and the ability to access a wider range of resources that can help individuals meet their goals in life

But I find myself wondering what’s revolutionary about working prisons (which now seems to be the focus of the rehabilitation revolution)? For me, rehabilitation is about much more than being work ready, having work while in custody and able to find work on release. Rehabilitation is about transitioning to a new life with improved well-being, greater participation in society and the ability to access a wider range of resources that can help individuals meet their goals in life. For me, it smacks of the core principles of recovery that are about enabling a more positive and more reasoned debate around how to build the right public services and community support to meet the needs of individuals.

But this is a hard sell when it comes to prison. Prisons are rarely seen as a core public service by the public or policy makers alike. This has reduced the ability to have a reasoned public or policy debate about the role of prisons in providing people with a second chance through efficient and effective rehabilitation programmes, and by doing so keeping the wider public safe. It has led to emotional media driven responses to policy development that fit with political agendas (prison works…) and has arguably created the crisis we now find ourselves in: a prison population at its highest in history, a staggering re-offending rate and a fixation on the idea that work – any work – equals rehabilitation.

We published RSA Transitions yesterday which sets out an alternative model of a not-for-profit community prison that would provide custody and rehabilitation services on a single site

We published RSA Transitions yesterday which sets out an alternative model of a not-for-profit community prison that would provide custody and rehabilitation services on a single site. This vision has a strong work element to it but it goes much further to emphasise the importance of empowering service users and communities, supporting and building prisoners’ capabilities within a learning culture, maintaining strong family links and developing new robust networks through the gate with local employers and the wider community.  It’s about opening up a range of opportunities to enable people to transition to a new life, helping them develop the skills and capabilities they will need to take advantage of these opportunities and by doing so reduce the likelihood of re-offending and keep communities safe.

As the RSA seeks to take this vision forward to a practical end, I would suggest that there is a lot to be learned from the development of the recovery field in driving a debate focussed on transformation, saving lives and healing communities. The reality is that ex-offenders are faced with a myriad of barriers to finding employment – some suggesting they are 13 times more likely to be unemployed than the general population.  And we’re hardly in a time when there are jobs-a-plenty.

So perhaps we should temper back the single-minded focus on work equaling rehabilitation and explore the broadest vision of rehabilitation – one that is perhaps akin to the vision of recovery?

Actually, prison can work

July 1, 2010 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Recovery, Social Economy 

I was only 11 years old when Michael Howard declared that ‘prison works’ in 1993.  I had little interest in anything other than hockey and who was going to be on Top of the Pops so you can imagine where this revelation registered on my radar.

My interests and priorities have expanded slightly since then so I pay attention when the Justice Secretary describes current prison numbers as ‘astonishing… impossible and ridiculous,’ and lambasted the revolving door of crime.

Let’s hope this is the new era of radical penal reform that will seek to do more than save the pennies

I support Clarke’s calls for a more sparing use of prison, especially if that means less use of short term sentences that do little more than exacerbate already difficult circumstances for people.  But it should be remembered that, done properly, prison offers an opportunity to provide intensive interventions that address offending behaviours and the reasons for those behaviours.  Those interventions can begin to develop the foundations needed to support long term recovery from substance misuse problems or the dismantling of sometimes deeply entrenched cycles of criminal behaviour.  This is certainly the overarching message in the RSA Prison Learning Report published earlier this year which laid out the principles for prison reform.

It is encouraging to hear the support of new initiatives such as the Social Impact Bond pilot in HMP Peterborough which will be seeking to develop some these intensive interventions in line with the ‘payment by results’ model Clarke mentioned.  I met with those leading the pilot yesterday and am excited by its possibilities not least as Peterborough prison will be the site of the RSA’s Recovery Capital Project being launched on the 19th July.

Let’s hope this is the new era of radical penal reform that will seek to do more than save the pennies.

The [not so] hidden army in UK prisons

September 25, 2009 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

I was told once that when people leave the armed forces they have three choices.  They either manage the transition well and thrive, they become taxi drivers, or they end up in prison. I have never seen any definitive evidence of this but having spent my formative years as a ‘forces brat’ I found it quite believable.

We’ve all seen the films where the new recruits are broken down and then built up again for the betterment of the squadron.  We’ve seen the programmes where bad boys are put through their paces to help turn their lives around. And by and large it works. It works because these individuals are part of a shared experience, coming together to work towards a shared purpose in a structured regime that provides for their needs i.e. accommodation and food, but also provides a level of comradeship that many may not have experienced outside of the barracks.

Our service men and women see things that the average person could not even comprehend.  I’ve seen friends parents come back from war zones a fraction of the person they were before they left. I watched parents leave the forces and struggle to adjust to in the civvie world. And many fail.

With so much of their social capital tied to the regiments they served in and the people they served with, there is a substantial job at hand and one that reminds me of the discussions being had around the appeal of gangs and the close knit family they provide for its members.

But knowing that there are around 20,000 of these veterans in the criminal justice system is truly appalling. No matter your view of the forces, many of these people have dedicated large parts of their lives to protecting you and me and those less able to protect themselves.

I have to agree with Dominic Grieve; it is a ‘disgrace that so many who served their country are in jail.’  What is it about civvie society that is failing these veterans, and not providing the support and structure that many come to depend on while in the Army, Navy or RAF?

Getting you onside

August 26, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

Overcrowding, enormous costs, and recidivism continue to dominate, finding a comfortable home in the pages of the press and a standard position on most agendas in the field.

Compounding this is the seeming irreconcilability of it all.  For example, the public are presented with the problem (i.e. overcrowding), they’re presented with the governments’ response to it (i.e. building more prisons places), and then they’re presented with practitioners, academics and policy advisors demonstrating the enormous flaws in the plans that will most likely increase the difficulties they were intended to address.

No matter who you choose to agree with, there seems no way out. So what’s the point?

Well the point is that we have a prison service is under tremendous and unsustainable strain. One that is failing to meet the needs of the majority of the individuals within it, prisoners and staff alike, as well as those beyond it, you and me.

Most agree that change has to happen at all different levels but to even begin to make that change happen we need the public on side.  They need to be actively engaged in the discussions and decisions as individuals, as communities, as employers, as educators, as mentors, as advisors, as friends and as family. 

Prisons need to be opened up so that they can be understood in the same way as we understand other public services; something that we all need to actively engage with in order to get the best, most efficient results.  As with schools and hospitals, local partnerships and greater community involvement will provide mechanisms to drive that understanding. 

This is a monumental task not least because of the sheer number of different interests and stakeholders, the political capital at stake, and the longevity of the undertaking. But I don’t think it’s unachievable.

Back in March I asked whether we need a Charter for rehabilitation.  I continue to see the merit of this approach, facilitating the development of principles by experts, academics, service users, the general public, policy makers, practitioners… everyone.  Such a Charter could be a ‘product of genuine collaboration and the administration behind it is a shared resource for all our partners’. Its been achieved in other fields, so why not this one?

Probation in a pickle

June 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

The Probation Service gets quite a bit of stick.  Whether you think this is fair or not,  David Scott’s frank discussion of the difficulties that the ‘beleaguered’ service faces in navigating not only the landscape of public engagement and attitudes, but also the political meddling in budgetary affairs and planning, is disturbing.

Today’s probation service is a radically different institution to the model fashioned by early pioneers to save souls.  Its key imperative now seems to be law enforcement with a bit of rehabilitation and treatment thrown in.  Probation officers have caseloads that make my knees buckle just at the thought of the sheer numbers.  And it is the numbers that seem to count; how many ex-prisoners on the books, how many are in treatment, how many re-offend, etc. Unlike in prisons, there is rarely any discussion of capacity – as Mr Scott clearly points out – and so the caseload numbers continue to rise while at the same time numbers of officers is reducing.

Most probation officers see – face to face – the individuals they are essentially responsible for, for an average of half an hour every one to two weeks. 

Quoting a well known fictional column writer… “I can’t help but wonder” about how skewed so much of this seems.  The probation service only really has a duty to supervise those people who have served a prison sentence of more than 12 months.  Only a small percentage (0.6% was quoted in 2007) of those who are supervised are convicted of another offence. Officers have a difficult job dealing with budget constraints, reducing staff numbers and increasing caseloads. Politics and public attitudes hinder their work and stifle innovation.

To me it seems that the answers are somewhat straight forward and pretty similar to what I have said before in terms of what goes on in prisons.  There should be less people in prison.  ALL ex-prisoners should be supervised according to their level of need and risk. Communities should have a greater level of involvement in designing and delivering rehabilitation and community action plans (and I don’t mean things like PayBack with fluorescent jackets) and these should begin at the start of a prison sentence.  Families, friends and wider social networks need to be developed and engaged at every level. And Politics should take a back seat.

Not in my backyard

May 28, 2009 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

Let’s be honest; the idea of a prison holding 1500 individuals who have committed a range of crimes being built in your community is not the most appealing.  So when I switched onto the news last night and learnt that Dagenham was on the verge of protest against a proposed new private prison it didn’t come as a shock.  And when a journo asks a woman on the street randomly “would you be happy with your kids playing in the garden with a prison next door?” you’re hardly astounded by the response “no way. We don’t want it anywhere near us, it’s not safe” (nb: not verbatim!).

My personal view is that the outrage should be about the fact that these huge prisons are still being planned.  We should be reducing the prison population, not providing the space to increase it.

But if they’re going to happen then we need to make the best of it and that means having prisons that not only keep communities safe, but also cater to a range of community needs.  I wonder how residents in Dagenham would feel if they knew more about prisons, how they operated and actually visited one.  Fran and I were always keen on setting up a ‘Visit a Prison’ scheme but felt it was a little beyond the scope of the PLN – perhaps the relevant government departments (Schools? Community? MoJ? Home Office?) should have a go.

We know that when presented with objective factual information the general public are far less punitive and have fewer objections to the incentive schemes or variety of programmes that operate in prisons.  Imagine if more were able to see firsthand how they work rather than rely on the media to provide information which is focussed primarily on the negative and sensational.  The news stories about the Dagenham dispute, for example keeps mentioning the possibility of prisoners escaping.

“No prison is escape-proof”.

I don’t mean to dismiss this, but come on.  Arguably, people in prison are people who just happen to have been caught.  Does that make them anymore dangerous than those on the streets, on the bus or tube, in the café round the corner or living down your road who may have also committed a crime – just one they haven’t been caught for?

Go gourmet in gaol

May 19, 2009 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

Inside the walls of HMP High Down, gourmet food is being prepared and served.

For the past 12 years, Chef Alberto Crisci has produced 3000 meals each day at the Surrey prison, on a meagre budget of just £1.68 per person, per day.  And now, following four years of planning and an investment of over £550,000, he will be responsible for training prisoners to high levels of culinary skill (City & Guilds NVQ 1, NVQ 2, NVQ 3 and A1 Assessor Grade) that will equal any external British college, serving staff, visitors and commercial customers in The Clink, Britain’s first commercial in-prison restaurant.

‘‘THE CLINK can, and will, change the public’s perception to prisoners. I want The Clink to be the sound of chains being broken for men who want, and have worked hard to deserve, a second chance at life.” (Chef Crisci)

I think this is one if the forerunners in innovation around resettlement in the UK at the moment.  Not only does the restaurant offer the chance to gain qualifications, develop on the job experience, and gain confidence in interacting with a range of clients; it starts to break down one of the main barriers to an ex-prisoners’ successful resettlement – stigma and prejudice.

More of this please!

The ‘problem’ of governor churn

April 6, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

In its embryonic stages the Prison Learning Network sought to address a very specific ‘problem’ – Governor churn.  The idea was that the frequent movement of number one governor’s and senior staff prevented good work from becoming embedded in a particular prison. While the movement did mean that poor performance was prevented from taking root, it was the good stuff that needed to dominate the discussion; highlighting the wealth of innovation and great work that exists in a field too often shrouded with negativity.

Although this question remained part of discussions, wider consultation in the early stages broadened the project developer’s views of the issues or ‘problems’ that the project should seek to address. For me though this question remained extremely relevant.  As a result of my work with the PLN a career with the prison service has become increasingly attractive and thanks to the encouragement and support of Roma Hooper I had the opportunity to meet and interrogate a long serving governor about the realities of the role.  One of those realities is, unsurprisingly, the fact that churn at the top happens and in a lot of cases, for good reason.

Prisons and their regimes have changed dramatically in the last decade but no-one would disagree that there is still a long way to go. Today the role of the governor seems to be largely focussed on ensuring the culture within their prison is one conducive to rehabilitation. Undoubtedly this will involve making enemies along the way, those working to a different agenda, stuck in their ways and reluctant to engage with a direction a million miles away from the ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ mentality.  Changing the culture of an organisation can be exhausting so perhaps it’s understandable that governors move on average every three years.

A change is as good as a rest after all.

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