When Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables, his great novel about redemption, in 1862, he described it as being about “a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice”.
Hugo stated that the battle Jean Valjean has with his criminal past, to become a force for good, was a universal theme, as relevant in England as it was in France, Spain or Ireland.
I wish to bear witness to the relevance that this idea still has in Britain today. Sadly, one area where injustice and inequity await is when ex-offenders attempt to secure employment.
A few weeks ago, at the invitation of Iain Sharkey (Business Engagement Manager at HMP Wealstun near Wetherby in West Yorkshire), I spent the morning with a small group of offenders discussing employability skills, and how they could secure meaningful jobs once their sentences were complete.
What I learned that day should give employers great hope. In a place that few employers would think to look, I found evidence of genuine talent.
The recruitment industry has slightly debased the term “talent” in recent years, but in Wealstun prison I met genuinely first class problem solvers and communicators.
I have been running employment skills seminars in different settings for nearly a decade. I am very familiar with my content, and the manner in which people tackle it.
One of the tests I use is deliberately difficult to solve. In a room of forty students at Cambridge University, not one of them managed to solve a particular problem within twenty minutes. Yet inside HMP Wealstun, within five minutes, one of the group had finished. I have never seen anyone successfully complete the task that fast.
In another example, a problem designed to test communication and process-design, a different offender gave the best answer I have ever seen in five years. Where most people over-elaborate and complicate, this offender gave a concise solution using about one tenth of the usual resources.
I have never believed that academic ability was the sole indicator of intelligence or potential, and so these results didn’t surprise me. Granted, it was only a small group of offenders, and almost certainly cherry-picked to some extent, but it was undeniably evidence that what employers say they need, can be found behind bars.
Aside the social stigma of being an ex-offender, the actual system for finding employment as an unemployed adult in the UK is truly absurd.
Ken Loach recently shone a light on this issue in his Palme D’Or winning film “I, Daniel Blake”. Just as Victor Hugo sought to contextualise his work, Ken Loach explains:
“We can see the conscious cruelty at the heart of the state’s provision for those in desperate need and the use of bureaucracy, the intentional inefficiency of bureaucracy, as a political weapon: “This is what happens if you don’t work; if you don’t find work you will suffer”.
I am not sure I agree that the bureaucracy is intentionally inefficient, but it is certainly inefficient.
That’s not to say that the staff in the job centre aren’t decent, committed people. It is to say that the employability programmes don’t seem to appreciate what makes an individual attractive to an employer.
Sadly, most employability programmes do not have sufficient anticipation of the needs of both employer and applicant, and how those needs are met within a job negotiation.
Employability programmes typically do not improve an individual’s ability, they mostly manage “numbers” through a process of application administration. The whole time an individual is engaged in a process, they typically aren’t actually getting better at anything, they’re just competing within that process.
As Ken Loach (and others) point out, that’s soul-destroying. If you are an ex-offender trying to find work, this represents injustice and inequity.
The cost to imprison an individual (£36,327 each year) should alarm us all. The aggregate cost to society is over £3bn each year. 45% of Adult offenders are re-convicted within one year of release. In 2013-14 only 25% of prisoners entered employment upon release. Just 12% of ex-offenders referred to the Government’s “Work programme” found a job which they have held for 6 months or more.
Finding secure employment is critical to reducing re-offending.
The good news is that a Yorkshire-based charity called Tempus Novo is making a difference to these figures. Run by two former prison officers, the charity identifies offenders who are committed to changing their lives, and prepares them for employment.
The charity doesn’t ask employers for favours or goodwill, but their system works. Their re-offending rate is 4.1%. Tempus Novo employer testimonials are impressive, and stress the very positive impact recruiting ex-offenders has had on those businesses. In other words, there are real benefits in this for employers beyond a CSR tick.
As a tax-payer, the fact that prisons exist gives me comfort. But it also matters to me as a human being that there is the possibility of redemption for those in prison. With apologies for the crude analogy, society works better if the economy can re-cycle rather than landfill it’s human resource.
In an issue as complex as the rehabilitation of offenders there’s a real danger of over-simplifying. I’m not advocating that every business should employ an ex-offender, or that every ex-offender will be fit for employment.
However I am convinced that the costs of prison, the “waste of ability” and the principle of redemption matter to employers and tax-payers alike.
As one year draws to a close, we naturally look to the new year, and the fresh starts that we might make. Any employers looking to make a difference in 2017 could do worse than contact Iain Sharkey or Tempus Novo.