Labour Gains

With the right tools at its disposal, the government’s New Futures Network could boost prisoner employment

By Rachel O’Brien

Rachel O’Brien is a consultant. She led on the RSA’s Future Prisons project and is commissioning editor of RSA Journal.


Prisons are a microcosm where contemporary challenges play out in a confined space. On the one hand, the prison workforce is exposed daily to deep-seated societal challenges including high levels of inequality, substance misuse and mental health needs. It is charged with responding when these shape-shift or when new problems rapidly emerge. On the other hand, the closed environment does not just present a barrier to physical movement. Combined with underfunding, capacity pressures and commissioning models that curb curiosity and innovation, it can also limit engagement with the ideas, tools and networks that drive solutions. For example, synthetic cannabinoids (the most common of which is referred to as ‘spice’) emerged relatively swiftly in UK prisons in the early 2010s, enabled in part by innovations in drone and miniature mobile phone technology. Combined with cuts to frontline staffing and a slow response from senior civil servants and ministers, this has wreaked havoc in some prisons. In England and Wales, cuts have also further restricted the amount of time that staff can spend looking outwards and working with the wider community. Meanwhile, recent research by the charity New Philanthropy Capital has shown that non-governmental organisations are finding it increasingly hard to work within the prison environment.

Prisoners can’t be choosers?

There is a broad consensus about the importance of employment in custody and on release, and evidence to show that employment can be a key factor in supporting rehabilitation. Part of this is about pay, but — just as importantly — the right kind of employment can support a shift in identity, belonging and purpose. Research, for example Jukka Savolainen (2009) and Beth Weaver (2015), shows a significant relationship between participation in employment, the accumulation of human and social capital, and the importance of citizenship and reciprocal relationships. Despite this, according to the Ministry of Justice’s latest figures, just over a quarter of people leave prisons with a job to go to, and only 17% of ex-prisoners are in P45 employment one year after release.

Likewise, the prison reform programme launched in 2016, which emphasises the critical role of education, training and employment within custody, has had mixed results. Although there have been improvements in the number of people obtaining functional skills qualifications, according to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales (HMIP), there has been a decline in outcomes against its purposeful activity test. In 2017–18, 43% of prisons inspected received an HMIP ‘good’ or ‘reasonably good’ grade, compared with 51% in 2016–17.

Historically, employment and skills programmes in custody have often been out of step with both local employment markets and the wider economy. At its most unforgivable, this included prisoners undertaking (sometimes more than once) qualifications that no longer had currency with employers outside. This benefited the provider, while wasting public money and creating false hope.

This low base — and sometimes a sense that ‘prisoners cannot be choosers’ — has restricted the space to argue for quality and a more sophisticated approach. But there is some better news. The slow increase of using release on temporary licence (that allows people to work outside before the end of their sentence) suggests an acknowledgement that former justice minister Chris Grayling was misguided in restricting its use in 2013. There are even some signs that the success of prisoner employment programmes — through the Ministry of Justice’s Education and Employment Strategy that launched a year ago — could deliver modest political capital. (Although this would require a stop to the ministerial merry-go-round.)

New futures

A number of organisations have been able to show positive impacts for individuals and shift the wider discussion about prisons’ and prisoners’ potential when it comes to improving employment outcomes. The most well-known of these is the retailer Timpson, which for over a decade has been training people inside prison and employing them directly on release. Organisations such as Bounce Back and Switchback have also developed impactful models of post-custodial employment. The challenge now is to ensure that the Education and Employment Strategy — and the new commissioning models that accompany it — support governors in learning from and scaling the best approaches, while enabling new players to make an impact.

It was with these issues in mind that the RSA developed its proposal for the New Futures Network, published in 2017. We consulted with practitioners, including officers, senior managers and governors, as well as wider justice services. This shaped recommendations for a new body to work with prison leaders in supporting reform and ensuring that when people return to their communities they have the right skills and access to employers to secure a job and build a better life.

Nearly two years — and three secretaries of state — later, the New Futures Network is now a reality sponsored by the Ministry of Justice. The model in practice differs from the RSA proposal in some important ways. More tightly focused on employment (rather than broader reform that supports rehabilitation), it does not have the quasi-independent governance structures that we felt would bring greater challenges to the system.

It is early days and the New Futures Network is not yet loud enough or sufficiently developed to fulfil its role in championing change. However, led by Duncan O’Leary, a central team based in London (the RSA’s preference was for locating the team outside the capital to prevent it being subsumed by Whitehall) has been appointed, with regional leads for prison groups across England and Wales starting this spring. An external recruitment campaign has brought in outsiders as well as serving prison officers. In addition, with sector champions in place — from hospitality, manufacturing, construction and retail — there is reason to hope for more noise and practical progress.

Work in the prison context can be positive, but without an ethical compass it can also be highly exploitative

Depth, breadth and impact

As the New Futures Network takes its next steps, it will face some tensions and choices. It has to move fast enough to prove its worth in a context where marginal short-term improvements to employment outcomes will be welcome. But if it is to fulfil its potential for creating self-improving prisons and delivering longer-term sustainable impacts, speed and simplicity of process should not be sought at the expense of depth and complexity in content. Having started to forge links with local stakeholders — and in the absence of an independent board — the New Futures Network needs to challenge itself and those with whom it works.

First, it needs to combine sharing practical examples with wider exploration of what ‘good work’ means. Work in the prison context can be positive, but without an ethical compass it can also be highly exploitative. Developing the right ethical model will be critical to ensuring that programmes benefit the individual, the prison, the employer and the local community. It will also need to look beyond the justice context to the wider world of precarious employment, changing gender expectations, the rise of the high-tech, high-touch economy, and the existential crises of demographic and environmental change.

Second, it needs to resist exclusive focus on large-scale providers ‘coming in’ from the outside with fixed approaches. While scale is important, when looking at transformative learning and work, there needs to be space for the distinct contribution that social enterprises, charities and individuals can make in supporting rehabilitation, often through co-productive working with staff, prisoners and the community. This includes developing ways — including seed fund approaches — to support emergent ideas, including those developed by prisoners and officers. Enabling this bottom-up innovation can strengthen people’s sense of ownership and involves problem solving and collaborative decision-making, which aid both individual development and institutional culture change.

Third, the New Futures Network needs the support of the Ministry of Justice to find both high- and low-tech solutions. This includes making a bolder case for finding safe ways to use new technologies that support work and the return to community. Smuggled mobiles aside, it is not just prisoners who are unable to use technology in the way that most take for granted; the prison officer shift remains a largely Googleless one.

More ambitiously, there is a pressing need to address the legacy data issues that hamper progress, as different systems fail to speak to each other. The Ministry of Justice’s Data Lab has made progress in developing useful data and ways for organisations to assess their impact. However, we are a long way from being able to capture data that can identify not just whether in- and post-custody interventions make a difference, but which are most effective, for whom, when and where. The costs of reoffending are estimated to be between £9.5bn and £11bn per year, while the latest data from the Ministry of Justice shows a slight increase in reoffending amongst those who were given a custodial or community sentence in 2017. The gains of having a more granular understanding of what works could be huge.

The RSA’s original proposal was clear that the scale of impact of any new body would depend on addressing the wider capacity pressures facing prisons and the levels of violence and harm (which remain high). This lies beyond the gift of the New Futures Network (and perhaps the Ministry of Justice). But when it comes to making the Treasury case for investment, neither should underestimate the potential impact of high-visibility employer support and robust cost benefits of employment (that go way beyond the justice budget). With these kinds of changes, our hope is that the New Futures Network can avoid falling into the bind we started with: facing today’s issues without access to the tools, trends and ideas that will shape our tomorrows.

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal — Issue 1 2019