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In defence of offenders

This article was written by Iqbal Wahhab OBE, who is the founder of Roast


I had breakfast with a murderer the other day. He had spent 33 years in prison for what he had done. In all that time no one had prepared him for release – how to get a home, how to adjust to a whole new world, let alone how to get a job. It’s as if on the outside his sentence goes on, now even worse than before as he hadn’t a clue what to do. Prison life at least offers certainty.

Michael Gove (right) will be settling into his new role as justice secretary by now. He could make a mark for himself and be unlike any of his predecessors and actually work with prison governors on how to prepare their inmates for active participation in the economy and society on release. We hear the statistics all the time – that over half of young offenders end up back inside within a year; that it costs around £30,000 to keep someone in jail per year; and that they get less than £50 on release to set them on their way.

Yet politicians tend to do nothing about this. They’re told there are no votes to be gained from helping ex-offenders and that the Daily Mail will pounce on anyone who is deemed soft on crime. So, with an election just completed, perhaps Mr Gove might take a different view. (The Mail seems to like him so he wouldn’t have anything to worry about there.)

He might come on one of the Business in the Community visits to prisons, where us private sector folk do so much more to re-absorb those who have casually drifted into crime and offer them the economic security and a life away from a seemingly inevitable return to jail.

He could meet prisoners like the one I met in Wormwood Scrubs who’d been assigned to cooking duties in their kitchen for two years, preparing 200 meals a day. He’d be as aghast as I was when he said he didn’t know what he would do when he was released, as he had no skills. He could watch businesses – Wates Construction, for example – which go to prisons as a source of recruitment and whose employees mentor inmates in how to write CVs and conduct job interviews.

If he stuck around long enough in his new job, he might delve further and investigate how the criminal justice system works against the chances of young people seeking an alternative, more mainstream life. An ex-offender who was due to do work experience with us didn’t show up on the day because he was back inside – not because he’d re-offended, but because the gang he’d previously been a member of hadn’t taken kindly to his decision to quit them, so beat him up badly and that’s why he was back inside – his early release had been conditional on him not getting into trouble again.

He’ll be as appalled as I was when meeting a business studies graduate who was about to start work at the Bank of England but will now never have the chance. On his way home one evening, he got caught up in a street fight and the whole lot were rounded up and imprisoned as a job lot.

It’s a regular refrain from this column that businesses step up where governments fail to do so. Over the last few years we’ve also found this kind of activity is good for business, as our customers like what we do in prisons. We recently staged a pop-up restaurant in a young offenders’ institute for our customers – it was so popular we’re doing three more.

Who knows – stranger things have happened – it might prove popular with voters too if he were more proactive in getting prisoners active in the economy. And he needn’t worry about the Mail – they’re not going to be supporting anyone else. So Mr Gove, are you up for it?

Iqbal Wahhab OBE is the founder of Roast. You can tweet him on @IqbalWahhab


This article first appeared in Directorthe in-house magazine of the Institute of Directors. 

It is reproduced here with permission.


Michael Gove