Prisons never get the attention they deserve. Prisoners are not a part of the electorate — and it shows. There are no votes for improving conditions in prisons or helping prisoners during their time inside. Any government that even hints at trying to do so gets branded ‘soft on crime.’ That likely explains a shocking statistic about the nature of our prisons, buried on page fourteen of the government’s latest report on the UK prison population. It states: ‘As of September 2022, 52% of prison establishments were overcrowded.’ That’s over half of all UK prisons. When it comes to the reoffending rate for England and Wales, despite a fall between 2008 and 2021 from 31.6 per cent to 24.4 per cent, the problem of swelling prisons will likely get worse — and more expensive.

Crime & Punishement

Prisons are meant to act as a deterrent. Almost completely cut off from the outside world, you are meant to realise the error of your ways and resolve never to see yourself back in such an awful, overcrowded place ever again. And yet, as the recidivism rate shows, that is simply not the case for quite a few ex-convicts. Almost a quarter of prisoners reoffend. The deterrence aspect, therefore, clearly is not working. If a person cannot get back to a normal, meaningful life once they have served their time, they are much more likely to reoffend. One obvious solution is to place greater focus on post-sentence support. In their current form, prisons do not give prisoners the skills needed to realistically increase their employment chances. There is no helping hand once you have served your time, only a well-oiled pole. And yet, why shouldn’t the state invest in expanding the economic potential of a dormant workforce?

The Apprentice

This is where prison apprenticeships come in. The UK’s skilled labour shortage could be eased by bringing prisoners seamlessly back into the world of work. When someone spends a considerable length of time in idleness, it makes sense to utilise that time and give them the skills needed to gain meaningful employment on release. The range of options is practically endless. One could train as a mechanic, engineer, and even software developer — professions where workers are desperately needed — with employers providing opportunities for an apprenticeship upon release. If one is serving a relatively short sentence of, let’s say, 9 months for a public order offence, then their apprenticeship could last a little longer to help them learn on the job. Arguably, there are drawbacks to short sentences which often do more harm than good. Ripping people out of society only to let them out a few months later, with the expectation that one will carry on as normal, is wishful thinking. In this case, even short crash courses could be beneficial and certainly better than nothing.

Bottom line: introducing an apprenticeship system will make prisons better value for money for the taxpayer. At the moment, if you have a power cut for no apparent reason, there is a shortage of electricians. Though apprenticeships are becoming more popular, 61.5 per cent of school leavers in 2020/21 chose to study for a university degree. In comparison, only 1.7 per cent went on to do an apprenticeship at level 4 or higher. There is an undeniable vacuum for manual labour resulting from this asymmetry. If prisoners could train as electricians and for other types of manual jobs with on-the-job training and the opportunity to be employed almost immediately, they could fill these shortages. Taxpayers and society at large would be the clear winners here. Having less incentive to reoffend when the prospect of a job and a new life loom, taxpayers’ money could be better spent on other public services. To invest in prisoners is to invest in our society and the economy.

A Chance to Dig Yourself Out

Prison apprenticeships, if done well, would not make crime pay. If all workers, regardless of age or occupation, had their wages increased by law to the National Living Wage, then a new role for the National Minimum Wage could be found with these apprenticeships. A gradual increase for each year an individual stays out of trouble could be introduced until, after about five years of having a clean record, one would become a regular employee and entitled to the Living Wage. In the meantime, businesses can get workers for less money and the public has some semblance of stability. When desperation is no longer a key factor, turning to crime post-prison may seem pointless.

However, as already stated, there are no votes to help prisoners despite the cost to taxpayers. A government seen trying to reduce prison populations would be rebuked for being soft on crime. In actuality, it would be, as Tony Blair once said, ‘tough on the causes of crime.’ Considering the benefits of a lower reoffending rate and a larger workforce, it seems baffling that prisons get so little attention. It’s time to change the narrative.

DISCLAIMER: The articles on our website are not endorsed by, or the opinions of Shout Out UK (SOUK), but exclusively the views of the author.