Dysfunction is so embedded in the prison system that the last Prisons Minister had to threaten to resign if standards did not improve to provide a jolt to the system. High rates of violence bleed into the prevalence of drug use, both of which contribute to sky high reoffending rates. Last year, nearly half of all adult offenders were caught committing further crimes in the year after they left prison, rising to nearly two thirds of those who served sentences of less than a year.

But the most depressing statistics are those that point to how prisoners are being deprived of the ability to redeem themselves and have a second chance at a life away from crime. When entering prison, no one asks you what skills you have or what jobs you have done, and the system does not plan for how you might go straight when you finally return. Three quarters of prisoners are in their cells for 14 or more hours a day; a fifth do not spend more than two hours a day in communal areas. Despite more than half of prisoners having the English and Maths skills of an 11-year-old, fewer than a quarter do basic literacy and numeracy and 80% of the qualifications gained by prisoners are below GCSE.

This is a hidden scandal for prisoners and for taxpayers. New research for Onward shows how prisoners who participate in education are 7.5 percentage points less likely to reoffend and those who find paid employment on release are 20 percentage points less likely to reoffend within a year. Because of the failure to engage prisoners in training and employment, just 17% of people leaving prisons are in payroll employment a year later. In our latest report – Unlocking a Better Life – we calculate that a 10 percentage point increase in the employment rate of prisoners would generate more than £40 million within 3 years in additional income tax and national insurance revenue, leaving aside the savings from reduced prison use.

We need an employment revolution in our prisons to reverse these terrible outcomes. Every prisoner should undertake a full 40-hour training week during their sentence. This means investing heavily in training and education, and bringing in more outside employers into prisons to work with prisoners on new prisoner apprenticeships, in prison industry, or an expanded version of Release on Temporary License, the latter of which has been cut by a third in the last five years. A custodial sentence should prepare for life after prison, not just incarceration for misdeeds before it.

This will require much more encouragement for employers already desperate for talent in a constrained labour market. We recommend that Employment Councils are created in every prison and regular jobs fairs set up to bring local employers and prisoners together. Finally, we should incentivise employers to hire offenders through the tax system, giving Second Chance employers a national insurance tax break for every prison-leaver they hire.

As Rory Stewart, the former Prisons Minister, recognised, the criminal justice system needs proper investment and a jolt of reforming energy to turn it around. If we want to cut crime, turn lives around and save taxpayers’ millions of pounds, we should focus relentlessly and single-mindedly on giving prisoners the skills and tools to get a job when they leave the prison gates. Like with poverty, work is the surest route out of crime.

Ted Christie-Miller is a Researcher at Onward and co-authored their new report, Unlocking a Better Life, available at www.ukonward.com.

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