Thirty or so years ago, a couple of lawyers, who were regular visitors to a London prison, realising that inmates would only reoffend if they left prison unable to find work, resolved to do something about it.
They set up the Prisoners Education Trust (PET). While prisons have education classes for all, they wanted the trust to provide specific accredited vocational courses to meet the needs of particular prisoners. Only 28% of prisoners find employment after release. Last week I met (remotely) the current Chief Executive of PET, Jon Collins. He wanted to tell me how they had used a small grant we had given them to fund online courses for eight South Yorkshire prisoners.
The initial contact comes from the prisoners themselves. They want to do something positive with their lives post sentence and realise that their time behind bars offers them a unique chance to take some crucial educational steps. PET helps them find the right course and then negotiates with prison staff to enable them to tackle it – with support from the charity. Steering prisoners to what will be most helpful to them on release is the key first step.
I asked what the most popular courses were. It seems that business start-up and health and safety courses were the most asked for, though PET will be open to any suggestions. Because courses are online, they can generally be made available in every prison across the country. And the courses are of good quality. They have forty organisations that can supply accredited courses – and that accreditation is critical for many career possibilities.
The lock-downs during Covid were a hard time. On the one hand, prisoners had long stretches of uninterrupted time for study. On the other, they were receiving less support, which affected general mental health, and there was a bigger than usual drop-out. The inability of family and friends to visit was particularly damaging. Prisoners who receive family visits are almost 40% less likely to re-offend than those who receive none. They are especially critical for female prisoners. It was also difficult to arrange for people to sit exams during the time of Covid restrictions.
In 2020 PET had 1717 applications for courses. In 2021 this grew to 2315 and in October 2022 they had already received 2124 as prisons gradually began to return to post pandemic normal.
Before my meeting with the Chief Executive, some of the prisoners had written about their experiences. I found the range of the courses surprising and the hand-written comments quite moving. To take two:
‘Gail’, who before prison had worked in care homes, retail and hospitality, is working for a NEBOSH certificate (National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health). She wrote:
This course will help me gain better employment on release from prison. It will also help with my personal development by increasing confidence. I’d really like to demonstrate to my family that I have the capability to commit to something like this.
‘Edward’ always wanted to be an accountant. He completed a book-keeping course and is now working towards a GCSE-level Accounting course. He has previously achieved GCSE English and Maths to help him prepare for the distance learning he is undertaking:
My previous employer knew of my ambition to obtain this qualification and is supportive of it… In prison this will give me something to focus on.
We have four prisons in South Yorkshire, all in Doncaster, and one of my new members of staff is a former NACRO employee, who used to spend time in one of them. So we have a particular interest in the educational needs of prisoners. Occasionally, people tell me that prison sentences should be made harsher and longer. This was the gist of part of a letter in last week’s Star newspaper. The truth is that however long a prison sentence is, men and women will one day come out. I would sooner them come out with at least a chance of getting a job than having no chance at all.
For all our sakes.
Can you help?
At this time each year I have to put together my proposals for setting the policing and crime budget for the following financial year (April 2023-March 2024) and the precept. This year, more than ever, it is a difficult task.
On the one hand, I am fully aware of the harsh financial pressures that are facing residents and the fact that everyone is feeling the pinch. On the other, the government has already indicated that public services will be squeezed and that will affect the amount of funding the Home Secretary provides to police forces to deliver a policing service, including tackling crime and supporting victims.
The policing budget for the current year is around £310 million and is funded by a government grant (74%) and by money raised through the council tax precept (26%) – the part of your council tax that goes towards policing and crime services).
In putting forward the proposal for the amount of council tax precept that South Yorkshire residents will pay, I have a statutory duty to consult and ask residents if they are willing to pay a little bit more in order to at least maintain the current level of policing service. To do this I have launched a short survey which also asks residents to identify the policing and crime areas that they would like to see prioritised and identify where they think savings could be made. Can you help with this?
If so, could you take a few minutes to complete the short survey:
If you are unsure which council tax band your property is in you can check here: www.gov.uk/council-tax-bands
Is it London – or more widely?
Just when we thought we might be seeing some progress in making our emergency services open and hospitable to people of any background, sexual orientation or gender, some new disclosure rocks our confidence. The latest revelations about the attitudes and behaviours of some members of the London Fire Brigade, in an independent Review of the Brigade’s culture, are not only very shocking but also quite unfathomable.
It was shocking to read about discrimination, harassment and bullying – what the chair of the London Assembly’s Fire, Resilience and Emergency Planning Committee, called a ‘toxic culture’. The Assembly knew something was not right following the death by his own hand of Jaden Francois-Esprit. A newly recruited firefighter, he was subject to racial discrimination and humiliating bullying.
As a member of the South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Authority, I know that a lot of work has been done locally by the Chief Fire Officer to re-assure us that we do not have a problem in any way like that in London and in 2019, the culture of the Fire and Rescue Service was graded ‘good’ by the inspectors, but we shall be asking for further re-assurances in the light of the Reviewer’s comments that there may be the same issues elsewhere in the service.
I say this is unfathomable because I cannot understand why those fire officers who have been found wanting in the capital seem not to have noticed what was happening everywhere else in every other organisation in the country. Patterns of behaviour that might have been acceptable once or, perhaps more accurately, were not being drawn to our attention or made public in the past, are now going to be exposed and called out. Of course, if what has been revealed is deep-seated and cultural – as the Review by Nazir Afzal suggests – then rooting it out will not be instant and will certainly require some brave stances being taken by many already in the organisation.
I ask the Chief Constable from time to time whether South Yorkshire police (SYP) have these sorts of issues – how we would know and what we do about it. She has repeatedly assured me that if attitudes and behaviours of this kind are found in SYP, then appropriate action will follow.
The arrival of many new recruits – 1400 out of 3000 officers – over these next few years gives another opportunity to ensure that misogyny, homophobia and racism play no part in this police force. It can be made clear to those joining what is expected of them. We will not tolerate them bringing these attitudes with them. And it can also be made clear that if they encounter anything like this, they should speak up and they will be supported. This is important because where undesirable cultures or subcultures exist, those joining are always in danger of being enculturated – drawn unconsciously into an existing culture – if alternative values are not made very and repeatedly clear and emphatically supported.
It would be absurdly utopian to suppose that there will never be instances of undesirable attitudes and conduct. We don’t plan on the basis of utopia, but we should be clear what is acceptable and what is not and take determined and consistent action if standards and values are betrayed.
I am always interested to get responses to blogs! Even at a concert at the City Hall. My thanks to Esmé and Peter for the brief conversation on Saturday before the Romanian National Philharmonic Orchestra carried us all away.