My Life in Prison(s)
W Bro Harry Benham, PGStB talks to Arena on volunteering as Chairman of the Employment Advisory Board for HMP Warren Hill.
It is a fact that prisoners who carry out work whilst in prison, and develop transferrable skills through training, are far more likely to obtain a useful job on their release, and are far less likely to re-offend.
It is also a fact that, each year, an estimated 200,000 children have a parent in prison. Employment opportunities for those parents can make a huge difference to their families and wider communities.
Unfortunately, released prisoners are more likely to re-offend than they are to avoid crime; statistics vary a great deal with the demographics of the re-offenders, but the re-offending rate is often higher than 60% for those ex-offenders who are unable to gain employment within 6 weeks of their release from prison. This re-offending rate is reduced by over 50% for ex-offenders with employment.
I have recently been appointed the Chairman of the Employment Advisory Board for HMP Warren Hill. This is a voluntary post, for which I was proposed by New Futures Network, part of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
Warren Hill is unusual among category ‘C’ closed prisons. It is entirely dedicated to delivering a range of services in specialist environments which support long term or complex prisoners towards progression into open conditions, or for release into the community. It holds some of the most serious offenders in the prison estate. So, how did I end up as Chairman of their Employment Advisory Board? Well, they (the selection board), thought I was ideally qualified, albeit I certainly did not apply for the post, indeed, two months ago I never knew that it existed!
Born in 1947 in Whitechapel, the eldest of five, growing up in London’s bombed-out rat ridden East End and leaving school at (almost!) 15 without qualifications, ‘going to sea’ at 16 wasn’t so much a dream, but more like an escape route. One which soon found me locked up in Marseilles prison for 3 months, which was (and I think still is) the murder capital of Europe. Thankfully, the French judicial system finally accepted that a) I was a juvenile and b) I should not have been there in the first place. I have never gotten over the prison styled bouillabaisse!
Fast forward nearly 10 years and, working for a construction company in Kuwait, I was locked up again for several months, as the company (not me) had broken some local laws. Then in 1975, back in London’s East End, I started my own exhibition design/build business and by default I managed to build a small workforce, comprised mainly of ex-offenders. This was not for altruistic reasons, but purely because they desperately needed jobs, and were prepared to work all the hours they were given. We soon earned the tag The Dirty Dozen! The business did well and by 1990 we had overseas contracts for the British Overseas Trade Board (BOTB). Great news until 1993 when, having built the British Pavilion in Tehran, due to some minor disagreement between the BOTB and the Iranian government, I was again locked up. This time it was in Tehran – not to be recommended!
Meanwhile, along the way, two of my siblings managed to get on the wrong side of the English law (separately) and were handed lengthy sentences which gave me, as the eldest, the headache and unwritten responsibility of dealing physically and financially with the mess made of their lives and those of their wives, partners, children, and even their creditors.
As you can no doubt gather, I know a bit about prisons, prisoners and the difficulties faced by ex-offenders. So in 2020, when my current business, DSA Connect, was struggling to recruit in the Covid/Lockdown period, I suggested that we looked at employing ex-offenders. DSA Connect deals in end-of-life IT equipment and, after several meetings with the MoJ, we agreed to set-up IT training workshops in HMP Chelmsford and HMP The Mount, where prisoners get accredited training by us on upgrading, repairing and refurbishing IT devices. Our training is all self-funding, as we sell the repaired/upgraded/refurbished equipment and pay the prison for every hour worked by their prisoners. We look to Public Sector and Corporate organisations to direct their end-of-life and redundant IT equipment through our prisons workshops, in our drive to create Green Collar jobs in the Circular Economy.
Finally, I am very pleased to report that our latest recruit is a product of our own system.After spending the last 10 years in prison repaying his debt to society now, at the age of 39, he is enjoying his job, has a place to live and can start to re-build his life as a returning citizen. So perhaps I am qualified to Chair the Employment Advisory Board at HMP Warren Hill after all.