Why I’m helping build a workforce of ex-offenders

Coracle founder James Tweed on why SMEs should consider tackling the skills shortage using ex-prisoners.

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The majority of business owners say they plan to hire ex-offenders this year. But this kind of initiative isn’t only a solution for the skills shortage. It’s also a way to improve our society as a whole.

Myself and my team at Coracle, a prison education business which won a King’s Award this year, work with prisoners every day. We understand the challenges but, more than that, we know how much potential there is for prisoners to build skills, as well as hope for the future, often for the first time in their lives.

The cost of crime

Many prisoners have poor educational backgrounds. It is very common for them to have few or no qualifications. They are also lacking in skills, work experience and basic documents such as CVs. When they leave prison, many struggle to find work and return to a life of crime.

This costs the country dearly, with the Ministry of Justice estimating that the cost of re-offending is in the region of £18bn per year.  

At Coracle, we can provide access education to a prisoner for about £500 per year, whereas the cost of housing a prisoner is around £48,000 per year. This means we are very affordable. But also we are scalable and it wouldn’t take a huge government investment to make Coracle available to the majority of prisoners.  

How the digital divide disproportionately affects prisoners

Prisoners are now emerging into a digital world; we use apps for everything, cash is disappearing and being able to use the internet is taken as a given. Yet internet access and mobile phones are largely banned inside of prisons. This means offenders are often even more disadvantaged than when they entered prison.

However, it’s challenging to provide it at scale for all sorts of logistical and security reasons. Coracle Inside is designed to tackle these deep rooted problems. By enabling prisoners to access education in their cells via a laptop, we overcome structural barriers and reach our target audience directly.

Creating a better start for future employment

We are, in many cases, bringing education to those who had very little of it during their childhoods.  The content is provided by partners such as The Open University, the Prison Education Trust, Shannon Trust and Aim Awards.

Many prisoners still leave prison without a CV, or without an up to date one – this is a simple but key problem to fix. We give prisoners access to tools such as our CV builder. Our long term plans involve expansion within the prison estate and then support for prison leavers “Through The Gate”. We also have plans to utilise Coracle’s educational resources within secure hospital settings. Plus, we want to use Coracle to support other marginalised and isolated groups of learners, such as some faith groups or travellers, where access to the internet is either forbidden or mistrusted, but where a digital experience is important.

How creating employment for prisoners impacts society as a whole

The impact on wider society of reducing crime is potentially enormous. Fewer victims of crime, fewer broken families, less money spent on recovering from crime and more people leading happy and productive lives.

Many of the people receiving educational content through Coracle are still serving sentences. Therefore it is a little bit too early to see the full impact accessing education via our platform can have.

But we can see the changes education brings every day. It leads to skills which are useful in the workforce. It leads to practical advantages in a society dominated by digital skills. It also brings hope for a future with employment, a future we can all do our best to support.

James Tweed is the CEO of Cambridge-based digital learning company Coracle Inside, which provides inmates at 86 prisons in England and Wales with access to education in their cells.<br /> In April this year, Coracle Inside won a Kings’ Award for promoting opportunity. It is one of the few companies permitted by the Ministry of Justice and HM Prisons and Probation Service to provide prisoners with laptops for education.

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