Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Squandering Human Resources

During the current debate about the under-resourcing of the UK’s prison system there is a focus on the shortage of front-line staff on the wings and the negative impact this is having on safety and daily regime inside prisons. While this is undoubtedly a major factor in the ongoing crisis, it is also true that our jails can be very wasteful of human resources in another way by ignoring the skills and experience of serving prisoners. 

Generally speaking, prisons are not good at identifying or making use of inmates’ qualifications, skills and talents. When cons come into custody they are supposed to be interviewed by an advisor on a one-to-one basis about their educational background and any academic, professional or vocational qualifications they may already have. This is primarily done to identify those inmates who may need support with their literacy and numeracy while they are in prison. 

Plenty of work to be done
The process, which can take as little as ten minutes, also aims to establish some goals, for example enrolling for a literacy, numeracy or IT class. In those establishments that still offer vocational qualifications – catering, hairdressing, carpentry, painting or brick-laying – the prisoner may be encouraged to sign up for a course that might improve his chances of finding paid employment on release.

The problem comes when an individual prisoner is ‘over-qualified’ in comparison with the very limited expectations that prevail within the prison system. Given that official figures indicate that around 48 percent of prisoners have reading skills at or below Level 1 (what would be expected of an eleven year old child), while 75 percent have writing skills below that level, there seems to be a widespread perception that pretty much all prisoners have some kind of learning difficulties.

I experienced this myself when I had my initial ‘education and skills’ assessment. The assessor, who worked for a contracted out education provider, seemed unable to grasp my stating that I already had academic degrees and, in fact, had previously had a career as a senior academic in a university. The actual assessment form lacked any tick boxes that might have recorded this information accurately. “I’ll put you down as having GSCEs” was the best that she could offer.   

Fellow prisoners could cite similar incidents. One, who was a former solicitor, also hit a brick wall when it came to recording his educational attainments in a format that would be acceptable to the prison system. In his case, the education advisor doing the interview just didn’t want to accept that he was telling the truth until she checked his prison file. 

Former solicitor?
It was as if it was assumed that all cons must be liars by virtue of the fact that they were in prison. Moreover, if you couldn’t produce a copy of your qualifications, they appeared to be disregarded by the system. How many people who have just arrived in prison, straight from court, are likely to have their A-level certificates, degree parchments or professional paperwork with them. I’d guess around about the square root of bugger all. 

It was our common experience that the ‘education and skills’ interview was far more to do with getting cons’ bums on seats in the education department in order to enrol them on a Level 1 course in basic literacy than actually trying to identify whether the prison could offer any practical resettlement plan in preparation for life after custody. 

At one B-cat prison I well remember being enrolled – without any element of volunteering on my part – for a Level 1 course (equivalent to around a grade D or E at GSCE) in ‘money management’. The fact that I’d previously handled institutional budgets running into many millions of pounds was completely irrelevant. I needed to be able to demonstrate that I could identify a Postal Order, fill in a dummy blank cheque and a bank paying-in book, and read a payslip. 

Being a pretty compliant sort of con, I duly turned up to the classes which ran twice a week for about a month. To be honest, they made a pleasant change from hard labour and the female tutor was a jolly sort. It was nice to have some pleasant female company rather than the occasional sour-faced female officer who stomped around the wing (almost invariably nicknamed ‘Screwella Deville’). The course was easy and it was pointless – and a complete and utter waste of public money. 

The wheel fell off the wagon, however, when there was an unexpected spot inspection by OFSTED. An inspector duly arrived in the wing classroom and sat in for a money management lesson. Afterwards, she started asking us about the course and our perceptions. Did we feel that we were learning anything? 

Looking beyond the wire
As soon as I started answering her queries, she smelt a rat. She asked a couple of pointed questions about previous educational qualifications and on learning that I had higher degrees and university fellowships, the balloon went up. What the hell was I doing on that course? 

Then it transpired that I was not alone. Others in the group had bachelor’s degrees or accountancy qualifications, and one of our number had been a commercial lawyer. None of us should have been put on a Level 1 basic education qualification to start with. Those cons who might have benefitted from the course were either locked behind their cell doors watching daytime TV or else were mopping the landings.   

We were all asked to leave the room and I gather that some hard words were exchanged between the inspector and the tutor. Needless to note, the inspection report was a disaster, highlighting as it did inappropriate use of resources and cherry-picking of over-qualified ‘learners’ (as prison students are called) who would all pass the course with ease, rather than working with inmates who actually needed to develop some money management skills.  

Toe by Toe mentor
Given the high levels of literacy problems among inmates, why are those prisoners who are academically qualified not made proper use of to mentor fellow cons? There is the excellent Toe by Toe adult literacy scheme being delivered by prisoners to prisoners, but this only accounts for 20 minutes daily. Instead, people who could be mentors are either being left locked in their cells or are being put into areas of work that will do little to improve the rehabilitation chances of anyone.

At the same time, there are many prisoners who have excellent non-academic qualifications and skills. There are plenty of caterers, mechanics, painters and decorators, carpenters, builders, glaziers, gardeners – all of whom could usefully be employed around prison establishments while making use of their expertise to improve the environment and reduce budget expenditure. However, in practice, there is little or no effort made to either identify prisoners who have these skills or to match them with jobs that need doing around the prison.

I recall sharing a pad (cell) with a gifted, fully qualified bookbinder – a rare skill these days. He was a lifer who was well over his tariff and years earlier at a previous prison he had been encouraged to continue using his professional skills. The governor made arrangements for him to work in a small workshop where he created presentation bindings for official projects and exhibitions. He showed me a few examples of his craft that he still kept in his locker. The folders and books were exceptionally fine. 

Book-binding: a traditional craft
He told me that he had once had ideas about training other prisoners so he could pass his skills on to a future generation. Maybe he could have helped a few younger lads turn their lives around by teaching them a craft that could eventually provide a legitimate livelihood when they left prison. 

Then the atmosphere changed inside the prison system. Budgets were slashed, his little workshop was closed and his tools were confiscated. When I last saw him, one of the last of our dying breed of skilled bookbinders was, despite his chronic health problems, working outdoors as a ditch digger and general field labourer on a loss-making prison farm.  

My view is that a much more creative approach is needed to identifying and making productive use of prisoners’ skills throughout their sentences. There should be far more mentoring schemes in place to provide suitable inmates with opportunities to make a positive contribution to improving the lives of their peers. This could play a key role in rebuilding confidence and boosting self-esteem. 

At the moment, however, the prison system often wastes the significant human capital it has at its disposal. We need a new generation of inspirational governors and wing staff who are willing to recognise potential and encourage it. While this approach may run completely contrary to Team Grayling’s vision of crushing the human spirit inside prisons (including that of the staff), instinctively I think we all know it would be the right thing to do – and it might even reduce re-offending, which Chris Grayling’s way of doing things will never achieve in a million years. 


  1. A recent news item featured a collaboration between HMP Holloway and the London School of Fashion. Female cons are mentored by lecturers from the school to produce bags, pencil cases and other items as part of their rehabilitation and as a useful skill to develope further upon release.

    1. Thanks for your comments. Yes, I noticed that story this morning and re-tweeted it. Sounds like an excellent initiative. Hopefully Chris Grayling won't step in and wreck it.

  2. A few days ago, I saw a facebook update from a London based charity which trains male cons to express themselves through fine art. Fine art techniques include embroidery, basic sewing and knitting with the use of different materials to create an image.

    1. Thanks for the information. I'll check it out. I'm not sure that knitting needles are usually allowed in closed prisons these days - security concerns, I suppose.

      Some traditional crafts and cell hobbies have been restricted or banned recently. I know one brilliant artist, who previously won a Koestler Award, who was recently banned from buying canvas for no reason at all. He is devastated.

  3. Fine Cell Work:

  4. Handmade Alliance (open to all London resettlement prisons and ex-prisoners that live in London or nearby) has training, work experience and job opportunities for machinists, retail and business/enterprise