Policy Exchange finds strong public backing for proposals to occupy inmates mooted by Kenneth Clarke at Conservative conference
Fresh pressure to introduce a 40-hour-a week work regime in prisons in England and Wales comes from a leading Conservative thinktank on Monday.
A Policy Exchange report, Inside Job, reveals the vast number of prisoners do very little work and any employment is often "activity for activity's sake", non-commercial and on a very small-scale.
The thinktank suggests the introduction of a new prisoner minimum wage. This would be less than the national minimum wage to reflect the costs of board and lodging but more than current inmate earnings to encourage prisoners to work and save for their release as well as pay into a victims' fund.
The justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, announced his ambition to introduce a "regime of hard work" into prisons in England and Wales at the Conservative party conference last October but little progress has been made since then.
However, a YouGov poll commissioned last month by Policy Exchange shows strong public backing for an expansion of prison work schemes with 71% supporting the use of private employers. Most believe that prisoners who work should be paid but they should contribute to the costs of keeping them behind bars.
The thinktank, which has proved highly influential in shaping coalition crime and justice policies, says the polling data shows that introducing "real work" into prisons could be a very popular part of the government's "rehabilitation revolution".
"People expect prisoners to work in jail but, under the current system, no inmate is compelled to work and most do not choose to, meaning they leave prison totally unprepared for working life," said Blair Gibbs, crime and justice research director at Policy Exchange. "Creating a market for real work in prison where inmates are encouraged to replicate a full working week should reduce unemployment rates on release and cut reoffending rates. Real prison work is a long overdue justice reform that the public support."
The Inside Job report says there only 24,000 work places for a record prison population of 85,000 in England and Wales. There are 300 workshops and most are operating at only 50% capacity. Prisoners who are employed work an average of only 12 hours a week and are paid a token weekly wage of £9.60.
But the report's authors, Rory Geoghegan and Edward Boyd, say there are some good examples of companies employing inmates but they are very rare and most prisoners have no chance to take advantage of them. They cite the example of courier company DHL which operates a pick-and-pack workshop at HMP Wayland prison in Norfolk where inmates are paid £30 for a 30-hour week.
Ministers should "actively encourage household names and high-profile employers to consider prisoner employment," says the report. "The Ministry of Justice should look to develop a plan to highlight the importance of employment and purposeful activity and, with political backing, look to showcase the work of businesses who do engage in prison work so that new entrants are not put off by fears of negative publicity."
Prison industries have been in long-term decline and have not recovered from the general closure of the prison farms in the 1990s. In spite of a 70% growth in prison numbers since 1995, the proportion of work places has fallen from 17% to 11%. No private company directly employs inmates in a business operating in a prison in England and Wales.