Convicted prisoners talking about jobs may conjure up images of “dodgy geezers” planning their next crime, but one social enterprise is providing inmates with jobs in a bid to cut reoffending. Mark Gould reports
Commuters on the 7.31am train into London Victoria may think that Toni Harriott is just another young woman on her way to work. They might be shocked to know that by night she is a prisoner who must be home by 7pm in time for lock up in Downview Prison, Surrey, where she is serving a five-year sentence for drug trafficking.
But by day she is part of a unique social enterprise experiment that aims to tackle reoffending and so ease overcrowding in the prison system. The women’s prison population has rocketed by 150 per cent in the past decade and there are currently more than 4,400 women in prison. Toni and another woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, commute from Downview to work as production assistants at Inside Job Productions (IJP), a new production company in Shoreditch in east London. IJP is the money-making arm of Media For Development (MFD), a not-for-profit social enterprise company set up 10 years ago by James Greenshields, that uses the media in all its guises to tackle poverty, illiteracy, crime and isolation. IJP employs prisoners who have gained Btec qualifications (equivalent to A-levels) from MFD’s digital media course run at Downview in partnership with London Metropolitan University.
IJP makes promotional and training films, and audio CDs. Recent contracts include training and information DVDs for the probation service, prisons and a commission that will give IJP workers the chance to tell their story on BBC Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour. All the money earned is ploughed back into prison education schemes.
To illustrate IJP’s intent to be a serious money-making concern Greenshields hired Naomi Delap, a big name documentary film maker responsible for the TV hits Wife Swap and Jimmy’s Farm, as executive producer and Toni’s boss.
“I’ve filmed all sorts of people for TV from Doncaster miners to Jamie Oliver’s best mate (the rare-breed pig saviour Jimmy Doherty), but these prisoners have been the most rewarding to work with. We have found that they really want to change their lives and I am very proud to be helping them achieve this. This isn’t reality TV, it’s the real thing.”
The results of MFD’s work in prisons seem very encouraging. About 92 per cent of Btec graduates still serving their sentences went on to further education, training or employment on other media projects inside prison. And 53 per cent of released graduates have gone into further education, training or employment including degree courses, voluntary work, and outreach work with offenders.
One ex-student went on to win an award for student radio features for a series of audio diaries charting her journey from prison back to the outside world.
A check carried out in June 2006 indicated that just two ex-students (representing 12 per cent of ex-students released since March 2004) have received further jail sentences. That contrasts with the national average of 67 per cent of prisoners reoffending within two years – according to a Prison Reform Trust briefing in April 2006.
But critics would point out that the media is already awash with out-of-work graduates – won’t IJP simply be adding to the queues of jobless?
Greenshields says that the scheme isn’t just about creating more unemployable media wannabees rather he says that the skills they learn such as how to operate a camera, write a “treatment” for a production or participate in production development meetings are “a way of drawing people into the wider world of education”. There are lots of other skills that the course develops such as self-esteem, he says. “One of the production assistants gave a talk about her life to more than 200 professionals, another gave a presentation at the Department for Education and Skills. It’s about saying to people ‘you can achieve something that you never thought possible’.”
But what about the risks of employing convicts? Greenshields shakes his head: “I don’t see it that way. My own view is we know exactly who these people are. There are many people working in offices who may have criminal convictions and you would never know it. These are trusted people, they are usually first in as they are released from Downview at 6.30am and have keys to the office, and they carry out responsible jobs.”
What about the view that these are prisoners and they are being pandered to rather than punished? “This is not a soft touch, they are employees like any other and we have high standards that we expect of them. And if they don’t deliver they will be in breach of contract, which sets out their rights and responsibilities,” he says.
“You only have to look at the statistics – it costs about £40,000 a year to keep someone in prison. From a simple financial point of view it’s a waste. From an ethical point of view, these people are like you, your brother or sister, there is nothing right about throwing them in prison and doing nothing.”
Toni is the first of two Downview Btec graduates to be offered a real job with IJP. A troubled teenager, Toni left home at 17 and got into debt so a “friend” suggested that bringing some drugs into the country might be a way of earning cash quickly, Toni agreed. She was caught first time – her earliest release date is February 2008.
She is paid the national minimum wage so is able to save some money to help her when she’s released. Her jobs at IJP have included anything from interviewing a fellow prisoner for the Radio Four piece to organising equipment hire.
She finds her work challenging and enjoyable, and a world away from her previous chaotic life. She has found creative and organisational skills she never realised she had.
“The best thing about working at IJP has been the variety of work. Everyone here treats me with respect and I love being part of a busy company. I really look forward to coming into work, there’s always something different happening,” she says.
Toni believes that the media is the perfect tool with which to reach at-risk young people and young offenders, and that with her experiences she’s the perfect person to persuade them that a life of crime isn’t something to aspire to. Toni hopes that the qualification and work experience will change her life.
“When I get released what I really want to do is make my mum proud. She works with young people and I’d like to give that a go myself.”
● To contact IJP click HERE or visit Media for Development and Inside Jobs Production
The challenge of Social enterprise
Social enterprise ventures are being set up to provide health, education, social care and employment opportunities, where profits are reinvested for that purpose in the company or the community.
There are at least 55,000 social enterprises in the UK. Inside Job Productions, which has a full-time staff of four including two prisoner production assistants, was set up with a grant from the European Social Fund Women into Work initiative.
According to Greenshields, one of the main problems for social enterprise ventures is that they are not set up by people with business or legal expertise. The IJP has received pro bono legal support from law firm Lovells but paid for business advice and guidance from charitable organisation UnLtd – the Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs (www.unltd.org.uk).
In June 2006, the Department of Health established a Social Enterprise Unit to encourage “innovation and entrepreneurism” in health and social care. The unit will be working with social enterprises to identify pathfinders that will lead the way in delivering innovative health and social care services. A Social Enterprise Fund will be established from April 2007, to help with set-up costs.
The unit works with the Office of the Third Sector led by minister Ed Miliband in the Cabinet Office, which will develop a programme to appoint 20 social enterprise ambassadors to raise awareness of social enterprise.
This article appeared in the 25 January issue under the headline “Inside Job”
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