Britain’s secret workforce

Posted on 10 Jul 2012

A hidden army of workers are chipping in to UK plc and reducing costs to the taxpayer. Training criminals with vocational skills is more a win-win than funding unfair competition for manufacturers, says Will Stirling.

In the well-equipped workshop, Michael is planing timber for a new sofa. Next door, John is MIG welding a window grill, while Tony is changing the toolset on a CNC milling machine to make the next precision part.

When the bell rings, they’ll clock off and head back to their cells.

This is part of the vision of the Government’s Offender Learning and Skills programme. The scheme, detailed in a document called Making Prisons Work: Skills for Rehabilitation and launched by Skills Minister John Hayes in May 2011, aims to reduce reoffending by “turning offenders away from crime and into work, improving their skills and encouraging them to lead productive lives.”

HM Prison Service has two main raisons d’etre, says Steve Wagstaffe, director of public sector prisons in England and Wales. “Protecting the public and reducing reoffending. We know that about half of all crime is committed by those who already have a criminal record. Upskilling prisoners as a means to reduce reoffending works, partly because they are more likely to get a job on release,” he says. It also maintains control in prisons. “By giving them something constructive to do they need less monitoring. This can lower running costs.”

“About half of all crime is committed by people who have already offended.” Steve Wagstaffe, Director of Public Sector Prisons in England and Wales

While the Prison Service exists to protect the public and reduce reoffending, cost is a big driver of upskilling prisoners. The National Audit Office has assessed the cost of re-offending by prisoners as between £9.5bn and £13bn a year.

The idea of prisoners earning their keep is not new. “Ever since the 1950s when prisoners were sewing mail bags, part of our job has been to give prisoners something constructive to do while they’re in our custody,” says Mr Wagstaffe.

And around the world, many countries’ prison systems have some form of internal industry, based either on the US or HMP model, says HMP’s Jason Swettenham. In the US about 2,000 inmates work in call centres and telemarketing.

The rationale in UK prisons has changed in recent years. “Over the last 10 years the focus has been to try to give them work-ready skills – learning a proper trade or even learning suitable behavior for a work environment,” says Mr Wagstaffe.

A hidden industry

These skills are being commercialised. A thriving industry has evolved in the prison service, offering services from laundry and printing to CNC machining and MIG welding. Prison Industries is a department of HMP that grew out of the internal prison market for utility products. “We first serviced our internal market, and then other government departments,” says Mr Wagstaffe. “We produce nearly all the beds, lockers, bedding, clothing, security gates and window grills used in all our [123] prisons, very little is outsourced.” Much of the printed literature for the Department for Health, Ministry of Justice and MoD are made in prisons.

Corporate contracts have spun out from this internal market. Prison Industries provides laundry services for Travelodge, manufactures aprons and work wear for Morrisons supermarkets and provides digital printing for Williams Lea. Timpson the shoe repair chain has two academies in HM prisons, where inmates can take a full apprenticeship.

How popular is this with prisoners, bearing in mind it is voluntary and pay is negligible?

Prison Industries currently has 9,000 prisoners employed in prisons in England and Wales working in 400 workshops, out of a total prison population of 88,000. Ten per cent does not sound a high proportion, but that’s for workshop jobs only. “If you include those prisoners in further education programmes, catering, cleaning, grounds keeping and running offending behavior courses, half the population is ‘employed’ full time,” explains Wagstaffe. “And some full days are split between two people doing a half day each, so it’s more than half the population.”

HM Prisons plans to double the number of prisoners working in workshops to 18,000 in 10-years. And Prison Industries is getting more organised as a quasi-company within HMP, investing in more equipment, expanding its service range and extending hours to more closely resemble a working week. Most recently joining manufacturers’ organisation EEF to meet new ‘customers’.

Prisons of capability

Manufacturing capabilities at prisons spread evenly across England and Wales include:


  • Machining – Milling and Lathe (CNC and conventional)
  • Sheet metal work
  • MIG and TIG Welding and fabrication
  • Powder paint coating


A full range of woodworking manufacturing, re-modelling, and assembly services. Plant list covers:

  • CNC Machinery, Router, Beam Saw and Drilling
  • Cross Cut Saw, Rip Saw, Multi Rip Saw, Band saw, Re-Saw
  • Surface Planer, Thickness Planer, Four Side Planer Moulder
  • Edge Sanders, Wide Belt Sanders, Finishers
  • Edge Banding Machinery
  • Drills, Multi-boring drills and more

There are 11 printing workshops using digital printers, offering modern printing, folding, collating, binding (stitching, perfect and PUR) machinery.

Chinese proxy, undercutting criticism
“We have developed a subcontract service for local businesses,” says Wagstaffe. “Companies with large orders and stretched capacity can assess workshops and skills, if deemed suitable, they can subcontract their orders to Prison Industries.”

Wagstaffe says cheap products imported from Asia are often already assembled, which is wasteful. “You are freighting air, in effect. Items like toys and electrical goods can be flatpacked and assembled by Prison Services. We see this as helping British industry to find a cheap solution to low tech jobs like semi-skilled assembly, where that work was historically outsourced to China.”

He says that HMP is aware, however, that these services could be seen to be unfairly undercutting some British companies. “We are very conscious that people might have issues with employing prisoners to do gainful work at a time when many lawabiding citizens are out of work,” Wagstaffe says. Prison Industries has tried to select operations where there is a market, but where UK-based competition is not strong.

Is the Prison Industries’ services a risk to some manufacturers? A spokesman from the British Turned Parts Manufacturers Association, whose members provide engineering services, said at first glance the service could be a threat to BTMA members. But he qualified: “I haven’t seen the quality of what they are offering. The list of services sounds quite conventional and it won’t be competing yet with precision parts for the aerospace and automotive sector. But it depends on the machines and levels of competency they have reached.”

Prisons: A global industry

The concept of working prisons has existed since British prisons evolved from the Victorian workhouse. Here’s how some prison industries around the world work:

Detainees have to accept any working conditions, or the privilege of being allowed to work may be withdrawn. Companies find it beneficial to hire prisoners both because the cost of labour is much lower and because there are state subsidies to do so. In Monza near Milan, activities include:

  • Toy assembly for toymaker Peg Perego
  • Quality auditing of goods for Mediaworld (electronics retailer)
  • Documents scanning and data entry
  • Assembly of wooden boxes
  • Assembly of windows
  • Wiring for ATM (Milan’s public transport authority)
  • Disassembly of unsold appliances by Gaggia, used to restock spare parts warehouse

Women prisons: Through Cooperativa Alice, which actively works to reintegrate female detainees in the society, prisoners from San Vittore prison in Milan create hand-made prêt-a-porter wedding dresses, and even robes for magistrates.

South Australia
A main aim of the South Australian Department for Correctional Services is to equip offenders with employability skills to improve their prospects for employment upon release.

Prisoners in all seven of South Australia’s government run prisons are provided with vocational training through on-the-job practical training in a number of areas by the Prisoner Industries programme, which include:

  • Welding and metal fabrication
  • Component assembly
  • Concrete product manufacture
  • Manufacture of furniture

Prisoners produce goods for export and to replace goods that otherwise would be imported.

The California prison industry authority provides work assignments in the manufacturing and agricultural industries for about 7,000 prisoners.

The prison industry and Californian businesses work together as part of the Joint Venture Program [sic] to provide inmates with vocational training opportunities.

There are over 40 accredited certification programmes for prisoners to take part in, which are recognised by the relevant industries to help inmates find employment after their prison sentence. These include certificates in:

  • Welding
  • Metalworking skills
  • Forklift operation
  • Environmental protection

Printing businesses, perhaps, will feel most threatened. The repro and finishing skills in prisons are now sufficient to supply the Ministry of Justice with its official literature.

And the equipment is improving. Prison Services has a few 5-axis CNC milling centres and modern lathes and the number is rising. It represents a sizeable investment, a sign of the coalition government’s devotion to the Offender Learning and Skills programme.

How is it paid for? “After the spending round, the Ministry of Justice will receive an allocation, which for prisons has to be spent in relation to protecting the public and reducing reoffending,” says Wagstaffe. “We have to bid for capital to achieve those objectives. We think we can contribute to lowering reoffending with this upfront investment.” Budgets are tight, Wagstaffe says, and they would like more, but generally the coalition seems sympathetic to HMP’s logic for money to train prisoners.

Hard statistics on lowering reoffending rates as a direct result of skills training are hard to interpret definitely, says HMP, but the Prison Service is consistently hitting targets set six years ago for employing and accommodating prisoners on release.

Today about 40% of inmates find work or further education places on release. Meanwhile Prison Industries continues to offer an outsourced service for engineering, woodworking and printing, which can match or beat an Asianoutsourced service on price.

Will Stirling