Sunday’s episode of Channel 4’s Secret Millions series focused on a venture supported by RSA Catalyst. Led by Fellows, it aims to reduce reoffending by making offenders more employable: manufacturing and assembling quality furniture during the time that is often spent sitting in cells and being unemployed on release. The venture was selected by the RSA’s Social Entrepreneurs Network to be part of their Spotlight initiative and it also made perfect sense to me that this was the first Catalyst-funded idea to make it onto primetime television:
The size of the problem
Recent figures published by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) (1) underlines the positive impact that securing a job on release can have on reoffending rates – they are lowered by more than 50% if employment is found upon release among those serving short term (less than 12 month) prison sentences. A previous MOJ survey found that 68% of prisoners said having a job was the biggest factor in helping them to stop offending (2).
While some employers such as Virgin, M&S and Greggs have taken a lead in employing offenders, many employers remain nervous, often irrespective of the nature of their crime, their skills-set and real (rather than perceived) risks. This will at some point affect the almost 100,000 prisoners in the UK and the roughly 1.25m benefit claimants and 0.5m JSA recipients who have been cautioned or convicted (3). Their difficulty in finding a job will also increase as the labour market moves online (difficult to access in prisons).
The programme brushed over the difficulty of negotiating the bureaucracy of the prison service when helping prisoners to get employability skills through work in prisons:
- As Kate Welch (one of the two RSA Fellows who co-founded the venture in the programme, Reap & Sow) explained, owing to the responsibility that a Governor has over an individual prison, expanding a social enterprise would take considerable time persuading each Governor;
- There are also problems in that the longest a working day is allowed to be in many prisons is 5 hours long. Even those hours are restricted by staff shortages and emergencies/searches. This Howard League publication discusses some of the institutional barriers in more detail;
- Selecting the right people who have the skills for the job can take time. And getting the data on how they do upon release is also not easy – as a Fellow voiced at a recent Social Entrepreneurs Network event.
Some of these barriers are reducing as government sees it as more of a priority to “Make Prisons Work.”
(Presenter:) It’s a product with a conscience, do you think that’s a selling point?”
(Furniture retailer:) “To have a strong story behind a product is always very good”
(P:) “We were looking to sell it for about £1000…”
(FR:) “I think that’s feasible”
(P:) “How would you feel about having this in your shop. Is that something you would consider?”
Turning problems into opportunities
It was genuinely encouraging to see that some key elements of the social enterprise these Fellows wanted to test appeared to be viable. The furniture retailer interviewed signalled that the £1000 price-tag for the furniture was commercially-viable. The retailer also said that the social side of the enterprise – it was helping turn around the lives of the offenders – was a selling point. This echoed with what I heard from the CEO of Blue Sky Development. They have employed more than 500 ex-offenders since 2005 and 60% of the business is funded by delivering commercial work (4), in which he said firms are keen to take part.
Not only can the “turning-around-lives” line help sell products, but it also helps reduce some of the costs of producing them. Reap & Sow made use of the RSA Fellowship’s cultural partnership with Northumbria University to get students and designers in residence at arguably the top design school in the country to do the designs (helped along by our Catalyst grant award).
One interesting dimension comes in the form of studies that show ex-offenders display more entrepreneurial traits than average. It is this kind of evidence, when combined with problems set out above that has informed the RSA’s Transitions project, which is working with a prison in Yorkshire to test a new approach. It is aiming to provide prisoners and ex-offenders with resettlement services alongside opportunities for work and skills development both in custody employing ex-offenders on site and on release, with the assumption that some people will become ‘sole traders’ but will need support on developing their business, while others will go into employment but will sometimes need additional support. (Here’s a recent post from our Chief Exec on its importance and progress.)
There have already been smaller-scale successes by focusing on self-employment: Startup has supported 230 clients into self-employment and their clients have a re-offending rate of under 5% (5). Baillie Aaron FRSA set up Venturing Out which helping offenders plan micro-enterprises in prison. She now runs Spark Inside, who provide life coaching to young offenders before and after they leave prisons. Spark Inside believes that coaching can help ex-offenders break down long-term goals into small steps; for example how to use what might at first look like a dead-end low-paid job to build up the sufficient skills and capital needed to launch a business.
The RSA as a Catalyst
Many start-ups fail and we don’t expect every project that we support through Catalyst to become a gigantic social enterprise. Reap & Sow has been put on hold because of a breakdown in the working relationship of the two Fellows who co-founded it (which is why you never heard the words “Reap & Sow” and the programme is quite unclear where the idea came from, whether it was via Acumen Trust or Katie Piper herself). But given the success of the first batch of production both for the ex-offenders and the response from retailers the Fellows are looking to make tweaks to the model and set up new vehicles to take it forward.
As well as supporting the success of individual ventures, we hope that Catalyst-funded ventures offer lessons to others trying to tackle a similar social problem. Getting the venture’s concept out to a primetime audience of at least a million will inspire others to run something similar and increase the demand for products made by ex-offenders.
There are some fascinating stories in the programme, not least the attitudes of the presenter who was herself a victim of serious crime. You’ve got 26 days to watch it and if I haven’t persuaded you, I’ll let Dostoyevsky: "The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.”
If you want to get in touch with Kate Welch, you can do so via firstname.lastname@example.org
RSA Transitions is doing a feasibility study to deliver a site next to HMP Everthorpe. If you are interested in finding out more see here or get in touch with Rachel O’Brien RachelO.email@example.com
Alex Watson is Catalyst Programme Manager at the RSA. He is also a volunteer member of the Independent Monitoring Board of a London prison – follow him @watsoalex