Prison bosses are to create a forum to try to persuade doubtful business leaders to back a scheme to introduce a 40-hour working week for prisoners with companies establishing workplaces inside Birmingham’s jail.
Private security operator G4S is set to ask bodies such as the city’s Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Confederation of British Industry to help spearhead its flagship Working Prisons: Working People campaign in newly-privatised HMP Birmingham, in Winson Green.
It claimed that the scheme could drastically bring reoffending rates down to three per cent compared to the national average of 50 per cent and has been supported by Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke.
But a survey undertaken for G4S, and seen by the Birmingham Post, reveals that many managers in the region did not know about the Working Prisons initiative and many believed there would be huge problems with red tape and security.
Almost half immediately ruled out taking part, and others highlighted concerns that it could be taking work away from people who haven’t committed an offence.
Of the 74 senior managers polled at West Midlands companies, more than 60 per cent were unaware of the Government-backed initiative, while 49 per cent of Midlands’ business chiefs were not convinced that there would be any incentives to working within or with a prison. Among the perceived barriers to business involvement were concerns about quality of work (58 per cent), poor skills levels (53 per cent), security issues (62 per cent) and bureaucracy and red tape (65 per cent). Almost half of Midlands’ managers (45 per cent) said their company would never be prepared to work within or with a prison.
The group will steer the campaign for Winson Green jail in Birmingham and at the new Featherstone prison in Wolverhampton, when it opens next year.
The forum plan follows the scheme’s national launch and the publication of a poll for G4S. This showed that when asked how they felt about the concept of working prisons, 32 per cent of senior managers who were aware of the programme thought it was a good idea and would be interested in supporting it, while 50 per cent would do so only as long as this didn’t result in work being removed from non-offenders.
However, the research also demonstrated a lack of awareness among business leaders of the benefits working prisons could bring, such as low overheads, modern working facilities and low wages, according to the private prison operator. Inmates could earn up to £20 a day under the initiative, which will be pioneered in Birmingham.
A spokeswoman for G4S said the firm was aware there had been a lukewarm reception to its campaign.
“We appreciate that business has to be won around but we are determined that it will be successful,” she commented. “Our own research has demonstrated little appetite by the business community to even consider getting involved. This attitude represents a significant barrier to bringing about the rehabilitation revolution, and we must all play our part to change it.”
The new director of Birmingham prison said he was in favour of the initiative. Pete Small supported the claim that getting prisoners to do more work would cut reoffending rates.
“I would be very interested in expanding the range of work and activity that is available for prisoners at Birmingham,” he said. “One of the major issues for prisoners when they leave prison, along with accommodation, is employment. Securing employment and accommodation will help significantly to lower the risk of reoffending,” he added.
Mr Clarke said he wanted inmates to work a 40-hour week and to increase the number of full-time prison industry jobs from 9,000 to 20,000.
He added: “I am determined to turn our prisons into places of hard work and reform, so that prisoners are doing something productive, instead of doing nothing.”
Katie Teasdale, head of policy at Birmingham Chamber of Commerce Group, said a firm’s priority was always to get the best person for the job, but the working prisons’ initiative was a “challenging idea.”
She said: “Employers will focus on experience, competence, integrity, knowledge and skills in their recruitment. A number of large employers have recently called for more companies to employ people with a criminal record. They have emphasised that former prisoners can be as reliable as other candidates. Clearly if former prisoners can get gainful employment and contribute to society then that is to be encouraged.”