Work Programs Bridging Prisons To the Community: A Recipe for Reduced Recidivism

By Christopher Zoukis

Finding a job and somewhere to live are probably the two most critical factors determining whether a released offender will do well, or end up back in prison. In the United States, up to 90% of those who are sent back to prison are unemployed.

In the U.K., the one year recidivism rate for released offenders who find a job and a home is about 40%; for those who find neither it is almost 75%.

Yet finding a job after prison is tough. In Britain only about 40% of released offenders find employment, but some interesting programs may be able to improve that figure.

Work training or slave labor

Working in prison is nothing new. British prisoners used to be known for sewing mailbags. Thankfully things have moved on since then, although as in the U.S., there is criticism that some programs amount to little more than slave labor. At Ranby prison in Nottinghamshire, inmates assemble bulkhead lights for Applied Security Design, a private company, for a little over $10 a week.

A shoe-in for post-prison employment

Other programs, however, offer a realistic route out of prison and into employment. Timpsons is a family-owned shoe-repair chain, and a familiar sight on British high streets. The company has three prison training academies where inmates learn the trade. They then go on to work in the company’s three in-prison workshops. British inmates are often given daily work-release during their final year. Those who have trained with Timpsons may be given temporary jobs in the firm’s stores during this period, then employed full time once they are released.

Railtrack, which runs Britain’s rail network, trains inmates how to lay track, then offers them permanent jobs when they leave prison.

The company that operates Britain’s power distribution network, National Grid, coordinates a scheme involving about eighty firms, through which offenders are trained on day-release, and then employed after their release. Over the past ten years, the recidivism rate amongst those who completed the program has been just 6%; that’s 85% lower than the national average.

Clink hospitality

Yet another great example is The Clink Charity, which trains inmates for careers in the hospitality industry. The charity currently operates three training restaurants for prisoners, with a fourth due to open at Styal prison in 2015, and Clink Events, an event catering company. Planned expansion should take the charity to ten training programs by 2017.

Offenders enroll with The Clink train while still in prison or on day-release. Once they leave prison, Clink provides ongoing monitoring and support, and works to find them permanent positions within the industry. A number of well-known and well-connected industry experts act as ambassadors to the program, including celebrated chef Albert Roux and accomplished hotelier and Master Innkeeper Graham Bamford. Clink Ambassadors both mentor the students, and use their network of contacts to boost the program’s profile and to find training and career positions for program graduates.

A need for similar programs in the U.S.

Initiatives like these not only provide training for real jobs, but also offer continuity from prison to the outside world, and remove at least some of the uncertainty offenders face when leaving prison. When released prisoners have jobs they are much less likely to return to criminal behaviors, or to be dependent on social services, both major benefits to the wider community.

In 2002 the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center recommended involving the private sector in prison vocational training so that similar schemes could be established in the U.S., but there has been little traction. The potential benefits for offenders, society, and the private sector suggest a win-win-win situation. As America looks for ways to begin reducing the enormous prison population, perhaps now is the time to start implementing similar programs across the U.S.

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