Employment and Employability in Scottish Prisons: A Research Briefing Paper


The full report on which this summary is based can be found on the SCCJR website. The research involved an international review of literature and examination of existing policy, law and practice around employment in Scottish prisons carried out from March 2017 to December 2017. The aim of the work is to explore how the SPS addresses the need for, and right to, employability and employment and to consider what kinds of legislative and policy reform can better enable the intended outcomes underpinning work in prisons in Scotland.

There is a complex relationship between (un)employment, offending and desistance. Employment can provide opportunities for offending but it can also support desistance. Employment may reduce the likelihood of re-offending, but unemployment does not necessarily correlate with an increase in offending. It is the meaning and outcomes of either the nature and/or quality and stability of the work – or even simply participation in employment – and how these elements variously influence an individual’s self-concept and social identity as well as how they interact with a person’s priorities, goals and relational concerns, that can explain this relationship at the level of the individual.

We know little about the efficacy and effects of employability programmes and employment in Prisons There is limited research and mixed evidence on the efficacy and effects of prison work, with studies often beleaguered by methodological weaknesses. There is some evidence to suggest that it can foster a sense of citizenship, wellbeing and inclusion but this depends on the quality and conditions of work and the presence or nature of wrap-around and follow-up support. Efforts to re-create “outside” working conditions in a closed environment are, however, problematic. Challenges include the exigencies of prison regimes, security issues and constraints on the facilities available – all of which can limit working hours and the availability of placements, which affects the productivity and sustainability of external provision, and which could undermine opportunities to develop a mixed economy of provision. Moreover, prison employment at present often bears little relation to the labour market, or is provided in fields where there is already an excess of potential employees which can limit its capacity to support access to employment on release.

Contemporary Concerns relate to a broad concept of ‘purposeful activity’ which includes work, education, counselling, rehabilitation programmes, vocational training, external work placements. The Review of Purposeful Activity is critical that ‘all time spent out of a cell in a work-like environment’ can be classed as purposeful activity. Activities are often disconnected from the needs and interests of prisoners and from the needs of the labour market. There has also been a reduction in the range of employment opportunities in prisons over recent years. As such, there is a recognised need for the reform and modernisation of employment and training in prisons, towards a more mixed economy of provision.

Areas for Consideration include the need to attend to issues around real pay for real work and the rights, conditions and protections for employees in prison and whether employment contracts are made with prisons or prisoners. ‘Pocket money’ wages affect the intended outcomes and negatively impacts on families providing financial support. Moreover, current approaches take little account of structural barriers to employment on release and fail to engage in job creation.

A role for Social Cooperatives? A potential mechanism for delivering holistic support, and providing paid employment and the range of employment rights and protections absent from current employment and employability opportunities in prison are social co-operatives. Social co-operatives are distinct from social enterprises or prison-industry partnerships as they are owned by their members, oriented to job creation and work integration and provide mutual support in prison, through-the-gate and on release, recognising employees as citizens rather than ‘offenders’.  While reducing reoffending is not their sole aim, evidence suggests that they create a social and relational context that is enabling of desistance and social integration. They also guard against the exploitation of their members, avoiding criticisms surrounding private-industry expansion into the prison system.