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Memo to Alan Duncan: Make prisoners work

Glyngaskarth Glyn Gaskarth, of the Local Government Information Unit, says prisons provide poor value for money - devolving responsibility for prison work to councils would help.

The Governments borrowing requirement this year is £175 billion. Next year it is projected to be £173 billion. This is unsustainable. To reduce it politicians will have to cut public spending not merely limit it’s growth. To limit these cuts existing programmes need to be redesigned to provide the same level of service for less money. In particular, prisons need to be comprehensively reformed to ensure taxpayer value. Below are five suggestions to improve the prison system, which I make in a personal capacity. They do not represent the policy line of the LGiU but we would welcome the contribution of Conservative Home readers to influence our thinking in this area.

1. End prisoner unemployment and sick pay:

Prisoners’ unemployment and short term sickness pay amounts to £2.50 per week. Long term sickness pay amounts to £3.25 per week. These allowances are paid if the offender has expressed an interest in working but has not been found employment or is otherwise unable to work. The Home Office reveal that it is too costly to differentiate at a central level between how much is paid to prisoners who work and how much is paid in unemployment benefit. However, the combined budget for prison earnings and prisoner benefit payments amounted to £32,617,477 in 2007/08. This is disbursed at the discretion of the Prison Governor pursuant to national guidelines. There seems to be little reason for these allowances. They could be terminated. If prisoners are not working they should not be paid. The fundamentals of substance, shelter etc are already provided free of charge. The expenditure on unemployment benefit constitutes waste. It should be cut.

2. Expand private sector prison work opportunities:

There are a range of objectives to expanding prison work opportunities and increasing prison wages. We can enhance prisoners’ employability, keep them occupied, provide compensation to their victims, help meet the costs of keeping them incarcerated, show them there are consequences to law breaking and allow them to save for their eventual release. We would also reassure the public that prisoners are not enjoying easy time on the taxpayers’ dime. Prisoners should become accustomed to working a full day while in prison. Instead the average prisoner spends eighteen hours a day locked in their cells.

Currently just under a third of all prisoners undertake paid work in prison. The prison service provides work to 24,000 inmates at a time, 10,000 of which work in prison workshops and 4,000 prisoners work for external contractors. The remaining 10,000 perform menial chores essential to maintaining the prison e.g. laundries. If the Government devolved the responsibility for providing prison work opportunities to local authorities these bodies could then work with local businesses and prison governors to expand the range of work opportunities available in prison.

3. Convert prison training schemes into prison loan schemes:

Offenders should not obtain advantage over those who have not offended. Thereby, resources invested in training offenders in the skills to obtain employment, should be repaid by offenders once they gain employment. Law abiding individuals are required to pay for university tuition or to learn a trade. Offenders should be no different.

The student loans system provides a model for how such a system might work. Offenders could be granted a sum sufficient to pay for the costs of their training. This sum would constitute a debt. This debt would incur interest at the rate of inflation. The loan could be split between a sum paid to the institution hired to provide the training and a maintenance grant paid to the offender to sustain them while they undertake the training. Placements on such schemes could be determined while the offender is in prison to begin on their release.

Repayments could be collected through the tax system once an individual’s income exceeded a specified sum. This amount could be £15,000 to correspond with the equivalent student loan figure. However, we would suggest that both the level of contributions and the threshold for paying them should be reduced. The £15,000 sum is based on the employability and higher earnings which graduates obtain. Offenders are likely to earn less on completion of their training so the threshold should be lower to allow more of them to begin making repayments. However, the proportion of offender’s income deducted in repayments could be varied to ensure recipients can afford the payments.

Local authorities have been given a responsibility to set the skills agenda in their areas. A list of approved offender training courses could be formulated based on acknowledged skill shortages in their local/regional economy e.g. the Olympics induced construction worker shortage in London. If offenders did not obtain employment they would not be required to pay back the debt. Debt repayments could be used to fund fresh loans to other offenders. This could provide a sustainable source of funding for prisoner rehabilitation.

4. Provide bank accounts to offenders: use their deposits to fund an expansion in prison education and employment programmes:

Currently, prisoners do not have bank accounts. They have prison ‘accounts.’ These can be added to by families and friends conditional on their good behaviour. They are administered by the prison authorities. These accounts are not transferable on release. Therefore offenders who often lack a copy of their birth certificate or a passport often do not have access to a bank account on their release. A bank account is necessary for individuals to receive their wages and pay their bills – all offenders should have one on release from prison. By saving their prison wages in preparation for their future release they would not be as dependent on public welfare.

The Government/Local Authorities or a private company contracted by either of these bodies for the purpose should provide all prisoners not on indeterminate life sentences with bank accounts. Offenders would deposit their earnings in their personal account. By limiting the amount offenders withdraw until release the Government or Local Authorities could be assured of having extensive deposits. These funds could be used to finance education and training programmes in prison. If these schemes were funded on the loan basis earlier identified then loan repayments could be used to meet any shortfalls in the costs of withdrawals by offenders recently released. However, this is unlikely to be necessary as new offenders would begin crediting their accounts at the same time as others were leaving.

5. Charge prisoners for their incarceration: Richer prisoners should be charged to meet the costs of their incarceration

Currently offenders are incarcerated at the expense of the taxpayer. Prisoners without savings or income should continue to be paid for by state funds. However, in the United States over one third of county jails have policies to charge offenders for their incarceration. In addition a majority of state correctional facilities have pay to stay fees. Charges are collected through the inmate's bank account during incarceration or through civil litigation aimed at a prisoner's estate or properties once they are released. These fees are varied on the basis of the offender’s ability to pay or their conduct while in prison etc. Charges in the United States range from $1 a day to $60 a day for board with the option for other charges for meals, clothes and fines for poor behaviour. Daniel Freedman, an articulate spokesman, outlines the case for this approach in Forbes magazine here.

The aim of these proposals is to reform the prison system. We must rehabilitate offenders without short changing the tax payer. However many people we send to prison and for whatever length of time they are incarcerated these offenders should be involved in productive activity. Locking offenders up in their cells watching television all day every day is not good for either prisoners or taxpayers. These reform proposals are essential and should be implemented now.


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