The second time Ian Perkins went to prison, he reached a turning point. “I hit an all-time low,” he says. “I realised that prison had changed, I had changed. I couldn’t believe I had made the same mistake again.”
Ian had been given a six-year sentence for assault and robbery, on the heels of eight years for firearms offences. “I knew if I didn’t address it now it would be my circle of life forever,” he says. “I had to do something.”
Prison was different since the previous time Ian had been inside. There were fewer academic courses on offer and not much in the way of vocational training, he recalls. The jobs that were on offer – making T-shirts, or doing laundry – were all for the prison service. “Nothing is ever done for outside,” Ian says.
Ian was released for the second time November 2014. He became a mentor for other ex-offenders and gave talks to businesses about employing them. It was at one of these talks that he met Rob Halliday Stein, a businessman from Birmingham who had made his millions as an online bullion dealer. The meeting led to Ian setting up Inside Out, a commercial laundry service that aims to reduce reoffending rates for people released from prison.
In April 2015, Inside Out opened its first prison laundry in HMP Hewell in Worcestershire. It has since expanded to three other prisons in the UK and has contracts worth £500,000, from clients including a premier league football club and a Michelin star restaurant.
Inside Out employed seven ex-offenders directly through the scheme after release and another 27 who were recommended to jobs. At HMP Hewell, the 12 men working in the laundry get the opportunity to train for vocational qualifications, such as NVQs in laundry and warehousing.
Linda, an ex-offender, applied to work at Inside Out at the start of a 12-month sentence, after Ian gave a talk to inmates. “He came across as very sincere and believed what he was offering,” she says. “My gut feeling was that he was a man of his word.”
She liked the sound of Inside Out for its long-term prospects: a reference of release not from prison, but from a private company and the chance to get vocational qualifications.
Linda, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, was called for a job interview. There she talked about her crime with Ian. “I was very emotional,” she says. “I was disclosing what I had done and the impact of that. Throughout the interview they were supportive and made me feel that I could open up on what I had done,” she adds. “That can be difficult, being judged again after you have been judged already.”
Ian knows from experience how difficult it is to get work as an ex-offender. When he got out of prison the second time, he wanted nothing more than to work. He filled in application after application at the Job Centre, but kept getting rejected. “It puts you on a bit of a low if you have knockback after knockback. Ultimately, people need money and they will do the wrong thing if they get desperate, especially if their social circle is bad. But if you offer them an alternative through employment, they will take it.”
Linda says the potential of paid work on release helped her focus while she was in prison. “The work helped because it was more active than I was used to,” she says.
When she was released early in December, Linda started work in the warehouse, picking and packing the laundry to be shipped to clients. “I’ve got mentor support here as well, to support me through the next stage of my journey,” she says. “It’s been an absolute saviour for me.”
Ian says he took “every course available” during his second sentence. But education in prisons is falling. Some 94,700 adults in the prison system participated in education during the 2015-16 academic year – a decrease of nearly seven per cent on 2014-15, according to figures collated by the Prison Reforms Trust. The number of qualifications achieved at GCSE level has plummeted, falling by 38 per cent in English and 35 per cent in maths between the 2011-12 and 2015-16 academic years.
Yet the Ministry of Justice says that one-year reoffending rates are a quarter lower for people who receive support from the Prisoners’ Education Trust, for educational courses or learning materials, compared to those who do not. And prisoners who attend vocational training are more likely to secure employment shortly after release according to Ofsted, the educational standards body.
Inside Out has just broken even, after securing £240,000 in funding from Rob Halliday Stein and six other private investors who each have a small stake in the company. He has plans to expand rapidly in other lines of business, including a potential valet service, through a crowdfunding campaign that will launch in early 2018.
The need to diversify partly stems from improving technology. That has in turn reduced the need for manual labour: “While I was in custody, a new washing machine was put in,” says Ian. “It was a good machine and they managed to do a whole prison’s washing in one day. That meant the guys were sitting around doing nothing.”
Manual labourers may be the biggest casualties of the shift to automation. But more efficient machines mean Inside Out can take on bigger consignments of laundry from “outside”: a positive outcome for a commercial business. And the inmates themselves learn far more than how to wash clothes. “You see the transformation over a six-month period,” says Ian. “Getting more self aware, more focused: the difference in that journey is unbelievable.”
And he should know. Since Ian was released from prison three years ago he’s settled down and is due to become a father in June next year. “My life spent in custody meant I wasn’t in a relationship. I thought that had passed me by,” he says. “Having this opportunity is just brilliant.”