The prisoner education and employment strategy

Richard Garside
Thursday, 24 May 2018

The visitor lockers at HMP Isis, where the Justice Secretary David Gauke gave this morning's speech on prisoner employment, only take the old one pound coins. It's a small thing, though one symptomatic of the host of dysfunctions that bedevil our prison system.

David Gauke is the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and his speech, given to launch the Ministry of Justice's new Education and Employment Strategy, was littered with references to the redemptive power of labour.

'I believe in the power of work to change people's lives', he said early on in the speech. It is not just the pay packet, he said. Work offers 'purpose, structure, networks, having a stake in something'.

Prison, he added, should provide prisoners 'with the impetus and incentives to set them on the path to a better life. The foundation for creating that better life is work'. 

As one person pointed out in the Q and A that followed, the real foundation for a better life for prisoners on release is a place to call home. Gauke did not demur from this and acknowledged that no amount of activity aimed at getting prisoners into work would count for much if released prisoners did not have a roof over their head.

Smoothing the path from imprisonment into employment on release, including through the greater use of temporary release arrangements, known as 'Release on Temporary Licence' (ROTL), has been a preoccupation of a number of governments over the years.

As another person present pointed out, boosting the use of ROTL had been a key pledge of the November 2016 Prison safety and reform White Paper. The lack of discernible progress since then makes one wonder whether the current Ministry of Justice team will have any greater success this time round.

Gauke's emphasis today was on the expansion of the work-related ROTL scheme. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that ROTL can serve a number of other, important purposes. These can include keeping in touch with family members, attending education courses, or making arrangements for release.

I hope that the push to encourage more use of work-related ROTL is not made at the expense of temporary release arrangements for other purposes. It is important to ensure that work is not seen as the only legitimate grounds for temporary release.

Of course a prisoner only needs to have his or her path (back) into employment smoothed because he or she has been imprisoned in the first place.

Gauke and the Prisons Minister, Rory Stewart, have publicly acknowledged that too many people are being needlessly imprisoned. At a roundtable discussion with Gauke I attended last week, there was also some discussion about how the prison population might be reduced.

But these are currently private discussions. In public, the focus is very much on how prisons might be made to work better, rather than on how they might be used more sparingly.

Reducing our reliance on prison will be a far more effective employment strategy than trying to repair the damage of imprisonment.