Blog: A new future for ex-offenders
Published: 15 Nov 2019
Prisons, reoffending rates and rehabilitation have always been an emotive subject in the UK, with over 83,000 people currently in custody in England alone.
Of these, there are less than 100 people serving whole-life sentences, which means that nearly all inmates will be released at some point in the future. Currently almost 1 in 2 people reoffend after their release, and historically rates have been at a similar figure for several years. The cost of reoffending is estimated to be in excess of £15 billion per annum. The challenge is to find ways to reduce reoffending rates and enable men and women who have been in custody to break this cycle and lead a crime-free life in the future.
The cost of reoffending is estimated to be in excess of £15 billion per annum.
Having spent several years working in prison education, I could see that there was an opportunity to facilitate the development of an inmate’s entrepreneurial skills as a catalyst for change. Employers are seeking people with talent to bridge their skills gap. Almost 5 million people are self-employed. Recognising and developing their entrepreneurial skills has the potential to break the cycle of reoffending.
I decided to seek inspiration abroad through my Churchill Fellowship. The USA, with over 2 million people in custody and reoffending rates almost the same as the UK, seemed a great place to start. There I was able to research amazing programmes that harnessed people’s entrepreneurial talents to reduce reoffending. Published reoffending rates of less than 10%, in a challenging environment, convinced me to go and observe first-hand these programs and bring this knowledge back to the UK. For my fellowship in 2018 I travelled for four weeks to New York, California, Washington DC, North Virginia, Nebraska and North Carolina.
With the generosity of many organisations and their staff, I was able to experience how they use entrepreneurship to engage with their participants in many ways. From Defy Ventures in Northern California and Nebraska, with their intensive six-month in-custody programmes; to Aspire in Washington DC, with their six-month community programmes; to Refoundary in New York and their year-long community apprenticeship-style craftmanship programme, it was clear that these long-term supported programs produced outstanding results, with each reporting reoffending rates of less than 10%.
The critical success factors could be identified as follows:
- Only by knowing themself can someone truly seek to change. Recognition of their history, using it to inform and not hold back future potential, and harnessing someone’s entrepreneurial talent, will lead to success.
- Partnership and relationship management with key stakeholders is key, both in custody and in the community.
- The best chance of success involves a sustainable and long-term programme of support that can be accessed post-release.
It is significant to note that almost all the programmes I observed were funded not by the state but by financial gifts from philanthropic organisations and pro-bono support from the business community. Harnessing a similar level of support in the UK will be a challenge, but not insurmountable.
By adopting the key learning points, I envisage that similar programmes in the UK could demonstrate lower rates of reoffending, and therefore enable participants to become positive contributors socially and economically.
Since returning in October 2018, I have been able to share my findings by speaking at two seminars organised by the Academy for Social Justice Commissioning in Manchester and London, and speaking at the International Enterprise Educators Conference in Oxford. I have also engaged with the North West Association of Churchill Fellows - I would highly recommend Fellows to seek out and join their own regional association, it is a great way to network with previous travellers and learn of their experiences, even those who travelled back in the 1960s at the beginning of the Fellowship.
The future for me is exciting and challenging. I recently took a decision to leave my paid employment, take some of my own advice and have just set up my own company – Entrepreneurs Unlocked, whose mission is to enable economic and social mobility through entrepreneurship. I am aiming to work with men and women who are currently in custody or recently released, to recognise and develop their entrepreneurial potential to become a better individual, employee or new business owner.
I have been able to secure a grant from the Rank Foundation (who funded the Enterprise Category in my Fellowship year) and I will be utilising this to deliver my ‘Offender to Entrepreneur’ programme in a north-western prison in the coming months. This will enable participants to learn about the fundamentals of setting up their own business upon release, and importantly enable them to continue to access support post-release – for example around HMRC registration, digital and content marketing, and mentors in the community. It will also enable participants to engage in coaching and business-pitching sessions, to refine their skills for when they need to sell themselves and their business to secure their first orders.
It is early days in my new journey and I know there are challenges in working within the criminal justice sector which will need to be overcome. I am confident that the knowledge I gained on my travels to inform my programmes will enable many people to transform their lives and lead a crime-free future. That is my goal and my passion.