Ex-offenders struggling to find employment

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A string of Kent-based charities and organisations that work with prisoners and ex-offenders have said a lack of opportunity and government funding is contributing to the re-offending rate.

The news comes as a damning report was released this week criticising the support and supervision short-term inmates receive when they leave jail.

The chief inspectors of probation and prisons for England and Wales said the government’s flagship Through the Gate scheme – which aims to help provide short-sentence prisoners targeted support on release – was failing to find them jobs and housing.

Out of the 86 prisoners whose cases were sampled in detail by inspectors, the report said just one had found accommodation through the scheme – and none had secured employment.

Christopher Stacey, of the Maidstone ex-offenders charity Unlock, believes giving ex-offenders a chance in the job market is the key to reducing the re-offending rate.

He explained: “So many ex-offenders are not reaching their potential because of hurdles and barriers in the way when they come out of prison. The main problems lie in employers giving you a chance, progressing up the career ladder where there is more checking and vetting, finding insurance, renting a house, getting accepted for a mortgage or even sometimes going on holiday.

“There’s an idea that you just serve your sentence but that’s not the case.”

The charity, which was set up 15 years ago by a group of former prisoners, is supporting the Ban the Box campaign to remove the criminal record tick box from job application forms.

“There is a real problem with how employers treat people with criminal records, and 75 per cent of them admit to discriminating against those who disclose a criminal record,” added Mr Stacey.

“Asking on application forms serves no purpose – they are something that someone has done wrong in the past.

“There are probably hundreds of thousands of people in Kent that have a criminal record, and it makes sense for business to employ them.

“These people make good employees, and companies like Greggs and Timpson that recruit ex-offenders have found them to be loyal, reliable and grateful. They are just people asking for a second chance, and by throwing their application form in the bin companies are essentially marginalising a large proportion of the workforce.”

Emily Vermont is the co-founder of Finding Rhythms – a charity that aims to reduce re-offending through engaging prisoners with music projects. After working with hard-to reach-inmates, including those based in Rochester and Stanford Hill on Sheppey, she believes that cuts to prison funding is harming the future prospects of offenders.

She explained: “In the last few years, staff numbers have been cut dramatically. Whereas before you would have for example, three guards on a prison landing, now you have one.

“It’s more dangerous for the guards so that means prisoners are locked up for hours at a time, meaning they have less access to things like education, the library and the gym. That has led to boredom, drug taking and self-harming.

“In my experience, if we want someone to change and stop re-offending we need to change their view of the world.”

She added: “Although providing services like ours goes against people’s instincts of prison being prison, we need to have a system that works.

“Over 70,000 people are released from prison every year. It’s a waste of human talent and potential if we let them go back to crime.

“A lot of people who we come across in prisons have fairly low confidence, low computer skills and low literacy and numeracy skills. But so often they are released and completely on their own.”

Michelle Elliott, of Phoenix Support, an organisation that helps vulnerable people across Kent and the south east, also believes there is a lack of support available to help offenders get back on track by securing a job or accommodation after jail.

The Maidstone company offers specialist services for ex-offenders with learning disabilities, mental health problems and autism – a demographic Ms Elliott argues does not receive the specialist attention they need from statutory government services.

“There lies a real issue with funding. There is a lack of pathway that connects the training prisoners receive on the inside and what they do after.

“Fortunately, there are organisations like us prepared to engage with prisoners when they leave prison as there are so many who do not have something to come out to.”

Reforms set up by the former justice secretary Chris Grayling in 2014 mean all prisoners sentenced to terms of a year or less are now subject to 12 months of supervision on release – an overhaul watchdogs have said is failing.

The revolution saw the creation of the National Probation Service (NPS) to deal with high-risk offenders, while remaining work was outsourced to 21 community rehabilitation companies (CRCs).

Kent, Surrey and Sussex Community Rehabilitation Company (KSS CRC) was taken over by private company Seetec in February 2015.

The service works with low to medium risk offenders and helps short-sentence prisoners find accommodation, employment or training.

Speaking of this week’s report which said the public protection work around short-sentence prisoners by private probation companies is “weak”, justice minister Sam Gyimah said: “We are already carrying out a comprehensive review of our probation reforms to improve outcomes for offenders and communities. We want to incentivise good resettlement outcomes to cut crime and protect the public.

“Public protection is our top priority and we will not hesitate to take the necessary action to make sure our vital reforms are being delivered to reduce reoffending, cut crime and prevent future victims.”

Suki Binning, CEO of Kent Surrey and Sussex Community Rehabilitation Company, added: “The HM Inspectorate of Probation and HM Inspectorate of Prisons report covered four CRC areas, which did not include Kent, Surrey and Sussex.

“NOMS (National Offender Management Service) Contract Management are generally positive and complimentary about our own resettlement services for short-term prisoners, and we continue to build on this success throughout the three counties we cover.”

Source: Kent News