The contracts of more than 200 dedicated careers’ advisers employed by the government to help prisoners turn their lives around will end in March in a “sudden and unexplained” move that charities say will seriously hamper rehabilitation efforts.
The decision by the Ministry of Justice to cancel the work of the National Careers Service in jails in England will cost jobs and make it harder for individuals to build crime-free lives, according to a coalition of 23 organisations.
Tom Schuller, who chairs the Prisoner Learning Alliance, said careers advisers in prisons were critical for helping people to gain relevant qualifications, build up a CV and connect with employers on the outside, particularly given the lack of access to the internet.
“Careers advisers carry out a vital role in our prisons, helping people to build crime-free lives after release by supporting them to access education and to find work. The sudden and unexplained decision to cut this service will leave hundreds of prison staff without jobs and thousands of prisoners without the best chance of making a successful return to our communities,” he said.
“We believe this decision will put further pressure on a system already under inordinate strain. We therefore call on the government to urgently explain and review its decision to cut the National Careers Service in prisons.”
Shadow justice minister Imran Hussein called the measure “shortsighted” and a “false economy”. He went on: “It makes no sense to take away the opportunity for prisoners to use their time in prison purposefully by preparing for the world of work, which could help offenders turn their life around.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman confirmed to the Guardian that the contracts were being ended in March and said the department was reviewing options that would give governors more control.
“We are committed to providing education and training to deliver more effective rehabilitation to address the needs of offenders,” he said, stressing that the programme had been run by the Education Skills Funding Agency.
However, sources made clear that it had been the MoJ’s decision, not that of the ESFA, to close off the advice, which will be offered only in the community and not to inmates from March.
An MoJ source said there were other schemes such as the Offender Learning and Skills Service, community rehabilitation companies and Department for Work and Pensions work coaches providing advice inside jails.
But Schuller argued these were not equivalent, saying job coaches visited just before an inmate’s release and did not offer rolling support before that. “It is not good enough to suggest that DWP job coaches will simply replace careers advisers in prisons. The two have different functions, as is reflected by the fact that both roles will continue in the community.”
The government would not provide information on how many careers advisers would be lost in prisons, but the PLA said there was almost 120 jails in England , with an average of two dedicated workers each. Prisoners tended to have access to three sessions a year to help them prepare for work after prison.
The alliance said NCS workers would lose their jobs if their employers failed to find a new role for them, and most of those it had contacted were about to become unemployed.
Marie Claire O’Brien, a former prisoner, stressed how important careers advice could be in turning lives around. She recounted her own experience in which her life took a chaotic downward spiral after the death of her father.
“Poverty is a big trigger for criminality and it was for me. I became a lap dancer, and had a car crash when I was drink-driving that killed a friend. I served 14 months. There was no career support when I was in prison – no engagement. I came out and was directionless because I hadn’t had those interventions and I wasn’t tapped into a college or third-sector organisation,” she said.
O’Brien turned her life around, setting up the New Leaf Initiative in 2014, which is based in Birmingham and is used by careers advisers to help inspire prisoners. She now gives motivational talks in prisons, telling others about her life and how drug rehab and employment support changed things.
To highlight the success of careers advice, she talks about a 40-year-old drug dealer she met who wanted to break free from his gangster family. O’Brien offered the man support and got him into voluntary work and then paid work experience. “He just wanted to support his family,” she said.
Eventually the man was offered a job by Virgin Trains, which runs a scheme to help ex-prisoners, and he recently received praise for his customer service work. “He was commended for the way he deals with difficult customers in a calm and dignified way,” she said.
O’Brien described the work of one NCS worker, Gillian, who helped female prisoners with grant funding applications for distant learning courses, provided one-to-one daily contact and support to use grassroots organisations.
She said employment reduced reoffending, so without organisations to focus on it, as well as complex issues around addiction, mental health support and homelessness, society would face more disengaged prisoners unable to turn their lives around. Figures show that 59% of unemployed former prisoners reoffended within a year, compared with 39% who were employed.