Prisons often get a bad rep; and why wouldn’t they? Rates of self-harm are at the highest ever recorded, funding cuts and staff shortages are resulting in prisoners being left in their cells for 23 hours a day; serious assaults have more than doubled in the last three years.
According to the Council of Europe’s most recent annual penal statistics, the UK prison population is the biggest in western Europe. The rate of reoffending in our prisons for sentences of under 12 months is 59 per cent, while between one year and four is 36 per cent.
It’s often said prisoners are ‘caught in the revolving door’; they go to prison and inevitably end up back in. Factors associated with reoffending include difficult family backgrounds, substance misuse problems, unemployment and financial problems, time spent in care, and pro-criminal attitudes.
A significant body of research shows that providing education to prisoners can reduce reoffending by creating a greater likelihood of post-release employment. However, the Prison Reform Trust reports that almost three-quarters of prisons inspected by Ofsted were judged as “requiring improvement or inadequate for learning and skills”.
Wandsworth Prison, the largest in the UK, is a men’s prison that houses nearly 2000 inmates. An immense structure covered in barbed wire and a multitude of cameras, it looms over a leafy common. Behind its tall walls, however, something inspiring is flourishing.
Cells Pitch is a three-week education programme that teaches prisoners to become successful entrepreneurs; it’s essentially Dragon’s Den for inmates. Participants attend the programme for nearly a month and present their business ideas at the end to family, friends, external guests and fellow inmates. The prize is £500 to help fund the idea.
The course is taught by charity Principals in Finance, which was set up by former banker Simone Haynes when she saw first-hand the lack of financial education provided to prisoners. In 2009, her nephew was doing work experience at the bank she worked at; in 2010 he was serving seven years in HMP Feltham. Simone went to visit him and was met with a 16-year-old boy who was actually enjoying himself “It’s not that bad here. I’m just chilling,” he told her.
After going straight to the head of the prison to volunteer her services, Simone held a class on finance and was shocked by the amount of questions she received. They wanted to know about everything from mortgages to banking to job prospects. She quit, set up PIF and the rest is history.
“I’m really proud of what they’ve done,” Simone introduced the men taking part. None of them had ever done public speaking before. As they sat waiting to be present their pitches, they joked with each other like they were life-long friends, even though they had never met before the course. Anticipation pulsed through the group.
Judging the event were ITV presenter Charlene White, Sky TV commissioner Marvin Benoit, operations director and company secretary of prison paper Inside Time John Roberts, Annika Allen, co-founder of The Colour Network, Erik Mesel, John Lyons Charity grant manager and Jo Tongue, CEO of Tongue Tied Media.
Following each presentation, two or three judges would give their opinion and offer advice on how to make the business ideas successful. The pitches were timely, pragmatic and inventive, and what they all had in common was the idea of giving back to the community; being involved in it rather than being an outsider.
Ideas included setting up a support group for fathers and their children, a mobile car wash service, motivational speaking, fitness training in prison, a mobile beauty salon focusing on pensioners, and a personal trainer Facetime app.
There is not usually a runner-up but the judges felt one of the participants, who came up with a Caribbean restaurant that served vegan, vegetarian and pescetarian food, deserved a prize. He won £250 funded directly from the judges.
The winner presented his idea for a cleaning company with confidence and ease. He intends to hire ex-prisoners to give them the chance they are so often not afforded.
The participant who had mobile car wash idea said in his pitch that he wanted to make his parents proud. Speaking to Wandsworth Guardian, he said prison courses often weren’t very useful and served only to make the prison look good from the outside.
However, he said Cells Pitch was “the best course” he had ever done.
He said: “I’ve done a lot of courses but I always drop out. I really liked this one- it builds your confidence right up.”
As well as Cells Pitch, courses such as conflict resolution, music production, graffiti art, and yoga are on offer to the residents at HMP Wandsworth.
Head of learning at the prison, Sarah Fitzgerald, said it was “an absolute privilege” to be part of Cells Pitch. She added: “This is just the start of what we can achieve when we work together.”
Founder Simone said: “The event was inspirational.
“Ten men all from challenging backgrounds worked very hard over the last three weeks, to develop a business that will not only have a social impact but also provide a legitimate income upon release.
“I was very proud to see how they had developed their ideas in preparation for pitching to an audience of 101 people comprising family members, external guests, staff and fellow prisoners.
“Not everyone can do this. Helping prisoners to embrace change and help with their rehabilitation is the best job in the world!”
Cells Pitch will be taking place again in May with a new batch of aspiring entrepreneurs.