In the basement of a central London office building, within a splash of the Thames, there are several small bays in various stages of decoration. Some have been painted and papered and there is only a little touching up on the skirting boards needed; others have had lining paper applied; one at the end is down to bare walls. David, the man showing me around, tells me he is going to knock a few dents into that one later.
David is a trainer at Bounce Back, a charity that helps prison-leavers enter the workplace by offering City & Guilds courses in skills such as scaffolding, dry-lining and painting and decorating as well as the Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS). Along with his colleague, John, he supervises up to 10 students at a time who are each allocated a bay and learn a variety of skills including painting, papering and, of course, filling and sanding – hence David needing to rough up the walls a little.
The charity started in 2011 as a social enterprise by Fran Findlater OBE who had already started employing prison-leavers when she worked in corporate communications. She decided to scale up her commitment when she needed her offices painted. “We interviewed prisoners and we convinced them that working for us would be better than crime, we would pay them a regular wage,” she says. “A friend with experience managed the team and then my corporate clients heard about what we were doing and asked if our decorators could do their decoration too. I was out doing the quotes in the early days.”
Working with a range of businesses and construction firms, including giants such as Robert McAlpine and LandSec, Bounce Back’s corporate partners help to support the 4,000 people who have graduated from the programme with the opportunity of a job. Many of the participants have received training in a Bounce Back training centre at one of the five London prisons with which the charity works. They can refine their skills further upon release or start applying for jobs straightaway. The scheme had a positive impact and there was an attempt to replicate it at HMP Leeds but this was, unfortunately, a victim of COVID-19.
“We wanted to show that you could turn lives around with support and an opportunity,” says Gail Stephens, who has worked at the organisation since it was founded. “The whole philosophy is supporting people through training and into employment.”
Bounce Back initially started its work from a disused community hall in Kennington, south London, the use of which had been donated by a patron of the charity. To show her trust in the men passing through its doors, Fran initially decorated the space with her family’s paintings. “The key thing was to demonstrate that people are always trusted and treated with respect,” says Fran. So far, that sentiment has not been misjudged.
“Six out of 10 people won’t even consider taking on someone with a criminal conviction,” says Gail. “Part of what we do is trying to change perceptions. We take our partners into prisons and organise [workshops] where they can meet prisoners.”
Everyone at the charity talks about how transformative those prison visits can be, how meeting prisoners – perhaps helping them with CV writing or seeing the way they are training – means that the prisoners are viewed as individuals.
“People can find visiting a prison frightening, they don’t know what to expect,” says Emma George, one of the charity’s engagement managers. “One lady was so scared going in but, by the end, she was asking when she could come again.”
Emma’s work involves giving wraparound support to the people passing through the scheme, from liaising with housing and probation officers, risk-assessing participants and helping them through universal credit applications to making sure that those who find jobs know how to get to the site and have money for a travelcard. It sounds exhausting, but Emma is cheerful about the challenges her job presents, saying her clients "really want to work”.
She is also the point of contact for any employer who takes on one of her clients. “Employers need to know that we do really good risk assessing and we know our people better than most people they take on.”
Her point is a good one: when Gail tells me that one in 10 adults has a criminal conviction, I looked sceptical enough for her to check the statistic. In fact, there are 11 million people with a criminal record in the UK which equates to more or less one in five adults. While most of these offences won’t have resulted in a prison sentence, it does suggest that a lot of people in the workforce are not declaring convictions and employers likely have prison-leavers on their payroll, even if they don’t realise it. Bounce Back argues that companies have full disclosure about their participants’ past and that it takes the necessary action and provides the right support to make sure that no one is at risk.
It is now largely accepted that many people in prison have made a bad decision, and, depressingly often, their criminality is the result of some predictable underlying factors: a childhood spent in care; mental health issues; homelessness; low educational attainment. It costs £48,000 to house a prisoner for a year in a British jail, but only about £3,800 to support a Bounce Back participant through training and into employment. Long-term prisoners who are released back into the community have a 31.8% chance of reoffending and, if their term was shorter than a year, the figure rises to 57.5%. It makes sense on a financial and human level to support them out of crime and into wider society – Bounce Back’s reoffending rate is less than 10%.
Finding willing employers is a challenge though. “You’ve got people sitting in prison with degrees and amazing careers behind them, they could be invaluable given the skills shortage,” says Jo Keane, who liaises with the 45 companies that support the charity as well as with the livery companies and potential employers. “The people who come to us are so passionate about finding work. People visit the prisons and they find what we do there really inspirational. They want to help but then other people in the company aren’t as keen. In some companies, it’s just not possible.”
Gail tells the tale of one client who was having her home redecorated by Bounce Back graduates much to the alarm of one neighbour who was upset at the thought of prison-leavers working next door. The job was completed successfully and, some time later, the neighbour learned a tradesman who had previously worked at her home had a previous conviction. It proves the point that many people are unknowingly employing workers with convictions as well as showing that people can turn their lives around once they leave prison.
Attitudes do seem to be moving a little. Fran says that there are now far more initiatives aimed at recruiting prison leavers and credits Dominic Raab’s influence for this progress. “People need the right help and support which we can offer them,” she says. “It gives them a choice for the rest of their lives.”
“We wanted to show that you could turn lives around with support and an opportunity. The whole philosophy is supporting people through training and into employment” Gail Stephens, Bounce Back
Joshua Okusanya – Suave Property Care
“Suave offers traineeships and employment to young people from less privileged backgrounds and we were working on a property for an interior designer who knew about our mission. She said that we should partner with Bounce Back as we had similar aims so we started going into prisons with them and, since last year, we’ve trialled about eight prison-leavers.
“We interview everyone and not all of them are ready for employment – their skills might not be quite high enough or they might still need help adapting to life away from crime. We’ve given some extra training and others we have been able to give jobs to. The important thing for us is that they aren’t judged once they’re here. We treat them as we would anyone else. We give them all the support that they need to keep them on the right track.
“It’s a big effort for them – it can mean totally turning around what they were like before they went into prison, getting rid of their rough edges and developing a work ethic. They need to develop a sense of purpose. But plenty of them really want the opportunity and with the right support, it works. We want to give people a second chance.”
RICS members who want to find out more about offering employment opportunities to Bounce Back’s participants, or partnering with the charity and its social enterprise No Going Back, can visit https://www.bouncebackproject.com/