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Jose Aguiar: Citizenship and Social Enterprise in Prison

Jose Aguiar

11 March 2014

Many prisoners come from socially excluded backgrounds, not only are they removed from their own communities in their current situation, but they may not have been fully part of society prior to their imprisonment. The aim of ‘teaching’ citizenship in prison is to help prisoners to gain the social skills needed to be active and responsible citizens in order to assist their resettlement and reduce re-offending.

Such an approach can support employability and entrepreneurship by enabling prisoners to become involved with working people from local community organisations. It encourages learners to debate social and economic problems and issues of the day, and develops the skills they need to find and keep employment or self-employment.

The Prison Reform Trust report, Time Well Spent demonstrates that encouraging active citizenship in prisons should play an important part in achieving the Government’s aims for a rehabilitation revolution and developing the wider concept of the 'Big Society'. It could help achieve the coalition plans, outlined in the Ministry of Justice green paper Breaking the Cycle, for making prisons places of hard work and purposeful activity.

A social enterprise is a not-for-profit organisation that has primarily social goals and which uses any surpluses to make a positive difference to the community: local, national or global. Social enterprises combine the rigour of the private sector business with the social objectives of public services. Social entrepreneurs use their business knowledge and skills and their enterprise capability to develop their social enterprise ideas. Many social enterprises have a citizenship dimension in that their establishment is based on a critique of the services provided by the private sector and/or the state. They aim to influence policy to make a positive change in society. RSA Transitions is just one such example.

The concept of helping prisoners to set up their own social enterprise while in prison introduces the element of active citizenship. While addressing social issues, prisoners are assuming their responsibility as citizens. Many people in custody feel excluded and often do not fully understand their rights and responsibilities. Some feel that they are unwelcome as citizens and do not know how to participate in their communities in a positive and constructive fashion.

Citizenship learning can have a number of positive effects. It can encourage socially responsible behaviour and can, for some, be a first step back into society. It can help reduce the risk of re-offending by encouraging prisoners to draw on their own experiences and consider the impact that an individual’s actions can have on society and the wider world. And it can provide opportunities for prisoners to have a genuine voice, to feel listened to, and it can contribute much to improving their low esteem and confidence. Meanwhile, social enterprises in many ways represent an ultimate form of the active citizen as it involves someone determined to make an ongoing difference by establishing a permanent organisation to achieve desirable social ends. The question is then how can these elements be brought together?

One example, and an area some prisons are already working on, is social enterprises linked to sustainability. If we are to enable prisoners to set up social enterprises in this space – recycling projects, skills for the growing low carbon economy – their value is not simply in the business but in why ‘green’ issues matter and their social benefit and wider application. United We Can is one such example from Canada and HMP Styal’s recycling project a UK example.

Many people in custody experienced many of the social problems that contributed to their imprisonment. Most will struggle to find work through traditional routes because of their criminal record and often limited work experience. Many want to ‘give back’ on return to the community. The development of social enterprises by prisoners will capitalise in their experience of the contributing factors that led them prison and the ones that lead to reoffending. Social enterprise can be a ticket to ‘getting out and staying out’.

Jose Aguiar is an educational consultant who has worked in prison education, developing educational projects for the last eight years. He has a particular interest in projects concerning citizenship education, social enterprises, democratic participation and related areas.