Is now the time to ‘waste money’ on prisoner apprenticeships?

As the new chancellor looks to the public sector for a renewed round of efficiencies and cuts, Sally Alexander makes the economic case for prisoner education

As the new chancellor looks to the public sector for a renewed round of efficiencies and cuts, Sally Alexander makes the economic case for prisoner education

23 Oct 2022, 5:00

The decision to allow every prisoner on release on temporary licence (ROTL) to take up an apprenticeship is one the whole sector has warmly welcomed. Indeed, it has been a long time coming.

At Milton Keynes College Group we provide teaching and learning in nineteen prisons, and we know how effective it can be, having seen more than 700 offenders into work through our Employment Academy Programme in the past three years.

But as the country struggles with the cost-of-living crisis and public sector spending comes under even more renewed pressure, it might be tempting for the government to see this as a convenient place to do some pruning. After all, prison education is no vote winner. We really can’t afford it and the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Or could it?

The report of the Commons Education Select Committee published in May was the catalyst for the then-justice secretary, Dominic Raab, to agree to apprenticeships being available to ROTL prisoners.

That report pointed out the direct link between prison education and reoffending rates.

It read: “Research by the Ministry of Justice in 2018 found that people who had participated in education whilst in prison were significantly less likely to reoffend within 12 months of release than those who had not by 7.5 percentage points i.e. a reoffending rate of 32.6 per cent from a baseline one-year reoffending rate of 40.1 per cent.”

Bear in mind that, encouraging as it is, this figure only relates to education. Prisoners who learn while still incarcerated and then go on to gainful employment are considerably less likely to reoffend, not least because they have more good reasons not to do so.

Prison education is no vote winner

In 2013, The Ministry of Justice published Analysis of the impact of employment on re-offending following release from custody, using Propensity Score Matching. That report compared recidivism between prisoners who had jobs to go to and ones who did not. It stated: “100 days after release from prison, nine per cent of offenders who have a P45 employment spell after release have re-offended; compared to 18 per cent of the matched comparison group.”

In other words, offenders going into jobs were twice as likely to stay out of trouble as those who did not.

The average cost of keeping someone in prison goes up every year, in line with or sometimes even above inflation. According to Statista, that figure had reached £44,640. Meanwhile, between January and March this year, 11,324 people were released from prison in England and Wales.

If we put all these figures together, we come up with some interesting possibilities. The net saving per year to the exchequer of not having those people in prison any more is £505,503,360 – i.e., more than half a billion pounds. If nine per cent fewer of those reoffend because they have work to go to, that is a saving of £45,495,302.

Meanwhile, estimates of the cost of crime vary and are subject to much interpretation. The range, depending on whose figures you alight upon, is from £50 billion to £150 billion per year. It’s impossible to say how much our non-offending former prisoners, now in employment, would have cost people and businesses, but it clearly must represent a further cost saving in the tens of millions.

And these are just savings. On the other side of the ledger, we also need to take into account the tax former offenders in employment pay, the money they spend in the local economy, the family members in receipt of fewer benefits, etc.

The result is an evidence-based, hard-headed financial argument for why increased investment in prison education makes indisputable sense.

Let’s be really conservative with our figures here in case we’re over-egging it. Let’s say education for prisoners leading to work only saves the UK a meagre £50,000,000 per year.

Could anyone still argue the investment is a waste of money?

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