This is a guest post by Sam Boyd, Head of Policy & Communications at Switchback.
Ahmed (not his real name) is 22 and grew up in Hoxton, London. He started dealing drugs aged 11 and has been arrested at least 20 times, leading to two spells in prison. “You do what you know”, Ahmed says. “To me, I knew how to sell drugs. In my community it’s just normal to do crime.”
Two years on from his second prison release, Ahmed now manages a busy street food market in central London and looks forward to starting work each day at 7am. Yet Ahmed is an exception: a year after release, prisoners are three times more likely to be back inside than in a job.
It is tempting to see Ahmed’s job as the solution. If more prison-leavers could be given the skills and opportunities to enter employment, we may finally reduce the 49 per cent reconviction rate and the £15bn annual cost of reoffending. This idea underpins the government’s Education and Employment Strategy and many other important initiatives to get prisoners into work.
There is a good case for focussing on employment. The benefits of work for individuals and society are clear, and being in a job can achieve a 6 to 9 percentage point reduction in reoffending, according to the Ministry of Justice. The government’s plans to engage more employers with prisons and devolve education funds to governors represent a good start for tackling the problems of low skills and limited job options for prison-leavers.
Yet at Switchback we find that employment alone is not enough. Among the young men we support, four in 10 face homelessness upon release, over half have a drug or alcohol issue and over two thirds have anger or aggression issues. Many of these challenges are linked to poverty and trauma and are entrenched well before prison. Most prisoners want to work, but holding down a job when so much else is unstable – from family relationships to mental health and housing – is nearly impossible.
During Ahmed’s first sentence he was supported into a job with a construction firm upon release. Yet at the time he was struggling to manage his anger issues, didn’t have suitable housing and resented his poorly paid, precarious job role. Ahmed started dealing again “to tide [him] over”, and ended up back inside. “A lot of people in prison want to change”, Ahmed says, “but they don’t know how to.”
After his second sentence, however, Ahmed took a different approach. Through engaging with Switchback he completed a training placement in a partner café to build his confidence and skills, and received intensive one-to-one support to address the behavioural and practical challenges holding him back. “Switchback helped me slow down and find work with more structure that’s better paid”, Ahmed says. “That meant I haven’t been back to jail. That changed my life.”
Ultimately, getting a job was not the key to Ahmed changing the way he lives: it was a by-product of it. By supporting a shift in personal narrative and building stability across his life, stopping crime and staying in work became natural side effects. This is why, as set out in a new report by Switchback, incorporating wrap-around support into employment initiatives is so important – ensuring that when people do get a job, they have the stability to stay there long term. As Ahmed now reflects: “Switchback taught me and pushed me so much. I’ve been shown a different route. Crime to me now – it’s ‘un-normal’.”
Ahmed was recently promoted (twice) and now works as a team leader and duty manager, while also advising Switchback as a member of our Experts by Experience board. “My parents weren’t in a position to show me much”, Ahmed says, “but when I have children I want to show them and keep the positives going. I’ll probably be the first one to change my family. I want to buy a house, I want to do it positively and show that to my children. I want to change the world that way.”
Switchback is an award-winning charity supporting 18-30 year-old men to live life differently after prison. Switchback provides intensive one-to-one support either side of the prison gate alongside work-based training to enable prison-leavers to make real, lasting change. For more information visit switchback.org.uk.
Switchback’s new report More Human, More Effective: insights for a better criminal justice system can be read here. Switchback are inviting others to work together on these aims: get in touch via [email protected] or 020 7650 8989.