I am an inmate at an open prison. I have been at the establishment for around 6 months now, already having served a sizable amount of time, and I am in the process of rebuilding my life. I am fortunate enough to have good family support and a stable background with which to go back to upon my eventual release – a lot of my peers are not so fortunate. I am already going home to visit my family at weekends, and I also have a very worthwhile voluntary part time job. In the very near future I will be able to go home for ‘overnight resettlement leaves’.

And that leaves me only one final hurdle; finding paid employment whilst still serving my sentence…

Part of the work I do within the jail (when I’m not out) is helping my peers to find paid employment themselves; I work as a mentor. We have various means by which potential opportunities can be generated, indeed many inmates source their own leads for work, or at least they try. I am lucky enough to work with some very professional people from outside organisations. Serco, SOVA, the National Careers Service, and the staff within the jail. A large percentage of the inmates in the jail are long term or ‘life’ (indeterminate) sentence prisoners, with some very serious offences and – in some cases – criminal histories. There has been a lot of focus from both media and government recently on the open jail estate following several high profile absconds and incidents.

But the problems we are experiencing are not necessarily what you would expect (i.e issues to do with disclosure, criminal record checks, unspent convictions). Neither are the problems often other obvious issues such as an inmate’s poor work history, and/or lack of qualifications and references.

On the contrary, we have several local companies extremely keen to take inmates on. After all, they would be getting (in theory at least) staff who are keen to get on with lives in the real world, desperate not to screw anything up, physically fit, willing and able. Grateful for what they can get, probably more reliable than the average applicant for a similar job, due to the potentially disastrous consequences of being anything other than a reliable and trustworthy worker. People who have been through a lot to get to where they now are. People who may have had extremely recently all relevant training taken care of as part of their sentence plan. People who will often be employable at minimum wage for starters, who won’t have demands for annual leave. In many ways, inmates can be highly employable people.

Getting interviews and job offers has not been the problem. The stumbling blocks we are increasingly encountering are with company insurance, and problems getting clearance from the Police Liaison Officer (P.L.O).

On the subject of insurance, I have very little knowledge aside from observations made: Insurers are wanting more and more disclosure information, and subsequent big delays are sometimes scaring employers off.

But the biggest problems are coming more and more often from the Police Liaison Officer. The P.L.O’s job is to clear any prospective companies as suitable and safe for a serving inmate to work for, although it should be pointed out that the Prison Governor has the final say and can in theory overturn a negative decision made by the P.L.O. A Governor will rarely overturn a P.L.O decision, which is understandable given that if something went wrong it would be down to one person making a decision against other ‘intelligence’, and therefore becoming a focal point for any blame.

Recently we have had several opportunities for voluntary work, paid work, and training placements turned down by the P.L.O. It seems to me that there have been more rejections than we previously had, and it does make you wonder if some sort of ‘shift in climate’ or pressure from above, such as at government level, have been the motivating factor. Within the last few weeks we have had a handful of P.L.O refusals on the grounds that the prospective companies had not been trading for long enough… upon closer inspection, one of these companies had been trading for over 4 years, plenty of time you would think – especially given how many businesses and companies have gone to the wall during the last 6-7 years. Subsequently you will obviously have many new start-up businesses. Not that 4 years is even within this remit; it’s clearly an established entity already.

If there have indeed been any unknown changes as a result of new government directives or criteria’s, one thing that you can be certain of is that the shift – if there has been one – will have been implemented extremely poorly. Half-baked directives given with no clear statement of intention, no back up training or clear instruction, no structure in place. Every single recent change to regime in open estate jails – and there have been several, I can assure you – have been exactly that.

A colleague of mine who suffered an inexplicable refusal by the P.L.O (and saw all his hard work and diligence come to nothing on little more than a whim) requested an appointment with the P.L.O, which, surprisingly he got.

The outcome of that meeting is almost too embarrassing to write about. The officer gave completely irrelevant comment about individual cases he had dealt with where an offender had been caught in unlawful circumstances, and even started talking about individual inmates still within our jail that he had dealt with – by name! He regaled an instance where he had reconsidered a decision, given the green light, and there had subsequently been a ‘mishap’. As a result he would “never change his mind again”. All this falls under ‘blanket punishment’ – one person’s misdemeanour being used against everyone else. The government have clear directives about such treatment not taking place. Talking about individual cases by name is downright incompetent, reckless and irresponsible, and the man had clearly no real guidelines or notion of what he was doing, let alone any concern about even taking it seriously.

Even when the clearance is eventually given, the fact remains that companies tend to advertise for jobs when they need staff. They cannot afford to wait for 2 months with no idea as to whether or not they will even ever get to employ someone they have offered a job. Why would they have advertised in the first place?

The current government have the party line that they are very pro offender resettlement. They have over the last 12 months nominated several closed conditions jails as becoming resettlement focused establishments. But it’s only a throwaway comment.

Many long term or ‘lifer’ inmates have virtual certainty that they will not gain parole without having found paid work. They will remain in open conditions costing the tax payer around £45k a year, clogging up a system already on its knees with population rise, and we are supposed to find paid work in this climate of seemingly increasing limitation.

And then they wonder why so many lifers are suddenly running away when they are out on temporary release…

I think there could be a link.

by Anonymous