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In these tribal times it is pleasing to find a public policy for which a compelling case can be made within every political tradition. Judging the success of prisons and probation by how well they educate and train people into a decent job has universal appeal. Seventy-five thousand people leave prison each year, of which 75% are unemployed. No wonder: nearly half of those in prison don’t read or write to the standard expected of 11-year-olds.

You can make a capitalist argument for future employment as a core element of a prison sentence, based on efficiency and minimising the tax burden. The criminal justice system’s failure is expensive (46- 69% of prisoners reoffend on release, costing £7-10billion a year). People are less likely to commit further crimes if they have the dignity, responsibilities, stability and wage that a good job provides.

You can also argue for it as a social justice warrior. Prisons are disproportionality packed with people from poor backgrounds, who have been in care (23% of total, rising to 50% of those under 25), and who are from a minority ethnic group (26%). Education and a good job helps break cycles of disadvantage.

You can even mount a libertarian defence of a Ministry of Justice education and employment strategy: if every other institution has failed to equip someone with the tools for self-sufficiency, prisons and probation must do this at least (and most). A Marxist argument is easily found in the prize of the withering state, by reducing the coerced and incarcerated population.

Given this ideological convergence, why is the status quo so bleak? There are both supply- and demand- side problems. Every prison governor wants to run a rehabilitative regime and offer a full timetable of purposeful activity linked to job prospects, supplying a job-ready pipeline to eager employers. The barriers to doing so are huge. They include the rigidity of national contracts which prevent local partnerships with FE colleges and small businesses who understand the market and can build the personal knowledge and relationships we all know are necessary. ‘Release on Temporary Licence’ (ROTL), used to be an essential and successful part of preparing prisoners for release but since the notorious ‘Skull Cracker’ case in 2014 it is barely in use. (A good example of why political leadership and courage is so important in defending professional practice during sensational outlier incidents.)

Staffing and violence levels also constrain local flexibility. For many prisoners there are also more barriers than just opportunity between them and a vocational qualification. Part of their progress towards a job offer needs to address substance addiction and mental health, and on the outside whether they have a place to live and supportive family and friends.

The current prison reform agenda is – slowly – trying to tackle these problems, with the most important change being a devolution of budgets, decisions, expectations and ambition to frontline leaders and managers.

On the demand-side, the constraints are similarly huge. Even when chief executives and boards sign up to do more to support rehabilitation, making changes in their organisations can be like wading through molasses. The perception that ex-prisoners pose a reputation or safety threat to staff and customers is enough for a risk-averse HR department to block progress. Large employers may sign up in principle but lose patience with the paperwork and inflexible regulation, for example blunt Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks or punitive insurance premiums. Others would love to talk to their local prison but don’t know how to initiate contact. And the centrally commanded hierarchy and constantly rotating managers of the prison service, and fractured probation system, don’t help.

There are many trailblazers working to train prisoners in the skills needed for their workforce pipeline. Code 4000, about to launch in East Riding, is an exciting pilot using digital mentors from tech to teach code, lining up jobs at Siemens on release. Bounceback, Switchback, Working Chance, Prosper 4, Offploy and Tempus Novo all act as effective brokers, within the walls and outside. Longstanding champions like James Timpson, continuing the wonderful legacy of his father, recruits 10% of his Timpsons, Snappy Snaps and Max Spielman staff direct from prison. Halfords have opened a training academy for the women in HMP Drake Hall. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab not only employs ex-offenders but makes the case to others for doing so as a rational business strategy, not a cosmetic PR or CSR exercise. As he argues, while those who have served time may need extra practical and pastoral support from their bosses at first, they become the most loyal, reliable and resilient team members, often rising quickly to senior posts. DHL, Virgin, Greggs, First Direct, Marks and Spencer and The Co-op also deserve recognition for their efforts to overcome barriers.

After Brexit it won’t be possible for the UK to ignore 75,000 potential wealth creators leaving prison every year. The first, second and third sectors will all have to work together to unlock potential.

Pamela Dow is the Chief Reform Officer at Catch 22. This is an article from Bright Blue’s latest magazine ‘Capitalism in crisis?