Entrepreneurship is key to prison reform – so why doesn’t government get it?
Partly addressing the doubts surrounding her commitment to prison reform, last week Secretary of State for Justice Liz Truss unveiled a new White Paper setting out her ambitious vision for a 21st century prison estate. But although the paper makes some very positive recommendations about the need to improve outcomes and reduce reoffending among prisoners, nowhere does it mention the importance and effectiveness of entrepreneurship in achieving those goals.
This is disappointing for several reasons. As the Centre for Entrepreneurs argued in its recent report From Inmates to Entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship – defined here in the widest possible sense to include everything from modest freelancing work to high-growth start-ups – has great potential to help ex-prisoners both avoid reoffending and support themselves financially.
Existing academic studies, interviews with those working in prisons and our own survey of four UK prisons have shown that interest in and aptitude for entrepreneurship are higher than average among prisoners. Traditional ways of working are being disrupted in an economy that enables and rewards flexibility and autonomy – as evidenced by the UK’s record high start-up and self-employment rates. Furthermore, those with criminal records face significant additional barriers to getting hired, as illustrated in official government data revealing that only 36% of ex-prisoners find formal employment in the two years following release.
Despite the strong case for presenting certain prisoners with entrepreneurship as a path to self-sustainability, the government’s White Paper completely ignores this in referring to traditional employment – and schemes to get prisoners into it – as the only game in town. While a 9 to 5 job will be the right option for many prisoners, a significant subset are far more interested in – as they themselves put it to us – “being their own boss”. This omission is frankly quite surprising given the widespread positive coverage our report garnered, as well as an endorsement from then Prisons Minister Andrew Selous and the Centre’s presentation of its findings in various high-level government forums.
In order to facilitate the blossoming of entrepreneurial talent in prisons, From Inmates to Entrepreneurs proposes the establishment of prison entrepreneurship programmes (PEPs) throughout UK prisons, with the aim of providing training, mentoring and funding to aspiring prisoner entrepreneurs wherever they are. This is by no means a pipe dream; our report documents the existing (but currently small scale) programmes in Texas, Germany and the UK that have achieved reoffending rates of between 5 and 12% (compared to national rates of around 50%) and profiles ex-prisoner entrepreneurs that have set up a variety successful businesses.
Although the Justice White Paper doesn’t reference entrepreneurship, it does announce changes and innovations to the prison estate that will undoubtedly aid the efforts of existing and future PEP providers. The decision to give governors discretion over release on temporary license (ROTL) permissions will make it easier for entrepreneurial prisoners to complete the necessary real-world preparations in starting a business, while the paper’s emphasis on financial capability, credit and bank accounts will hopefully improve the debt problems and money management skills holding back countless prisoners (not only the entrepreneurial ones). The commitment to hiring 2,500 additional prisoner officers should also go some way in making prisons less dangerous places and enabling a focus on training and rehabilitation, rather than damage limitation.
Conspicuously absent however are many other reforms that we believe would engender entrepreneurial talent in prisons – including entrepreneurial mind-set training for prison employees, innovative uses of computers and the Internet, regular entrepreneurship awareness raising sessions for prisoners, and the monitoring of entrepreneurial activity in the forthcoming prison league tables.
Yet despite there being significant room for improvement in the prison reform agenda’s stance towards entrepreneurship, we believe the prospects for the expansion of entrepreneurship programmes across our prisons remain positive. Leading organisations such as Enterprise Exchange, Startup and Prosper4 are going from strength to strength as recognition – among individuals if not in government as a whole – grows of the immense rehabilitative and economic potential of entrepreneurship for prisoners. Meanwhile, we at the Centre for Entrepreneurs will continue our work to support this mission and promote its acceptance by policymakers.