Ask the Expert: Supporting ex-offenders on their path to rehabilitation and employment

The latest instalment of our ESRC-sponsored ‘Ask the Expert’ series included panellists: Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice; Rt Hon David Gauke MP, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform; Frances Crook, University of Glasgow’s Professor of Criminology & Social Work; Fergus McNeill and University of Nottingham’s Senior Research Fellow; Dr Philippa Tomczak.

Before the panel discussed ex-offender rehabilitation and employment, Jennifer Rubin, ESRC’s Executive Chair welcomed everyone with a few words about the ESRC and our Ask the Expert series.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive, Howard League for Penal Reform:

Frances began by asking and answering three questions:

  • What is it we want from the justice system?
    A system that is prompt, efficient, fair, decent and very importantly, cheap.
  • What are we doing now, which is wrong?
    She made clear that victims are not treated well by the current criminal justice system. She discussed how sentences are excessive and prison conditions are awful, which leads to the perpetrators being made to feel like they are the victim.
  • What should we change?
    – The unification of the probation service back into a national service, which previously was regarded as our most successful public service.
    – A more sensible, proportionate and immediate use of community sentences.
    – Reserving prisons for the most serious and violent offences.
    – Introducing the opportunity to work and contribute – allowing prisoners to carry out proper work in prisons, earn a real wage, pay tax and contribute to their families. For the past 10 years, the Howard League for Penal Reform has been campaigning to get real work opportunities inside prisons, allowing prisoners to obtain skills for them to be “work-ready” on release. In the current criminal justice system, former prisoners find it difficult to hold down jobs when they leave prison – 70% are not in paid work a year after release. Prisoners can’t claim benefits whilst in prison, which can also contribute to high homelessness levels among ex-offenders.

Frances placed emphasis on the fact that England and Wales have more prisoners serving life sentences than in all other 46 nations in the Council of Europe.


Rt Hon David Gauke MP, Secretary of State for Justice:

The Minister highlighted the following during his talk:

  • Rehabilitation is going to be a key part of what our criminal justice system is about.
  • The offender needs the right support when they are in prison.
  • Throughout the perpetrator’s time in prison, the focus should be on their return to the community and putting them on the path towards a better life.
  • Society has a duty to ensure the criminal justice system does provide a second chance to offenders.
  • To reduce re-offending, there is a need to look at alternative community options.
  • It is right that we re-invigorate the system of incentives in prisons so that well-behaved prisoners can be rewarded.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has introduced the Educational Employment Strategy, which allows offenders to obtain the training they need to find jobs on release. The Minister highlighted the positive change of attitude coming from employers, Timpsons being one of many, with regards to hiring ex-offenders. This can provide us with an opportunity, especially when we have skills shortages. The Minister also pointed to the New Futures Network, which links employers to prisons and supports offenders obtaining employment.

This summer, the MoJ set out £40 million to go into increasing security, stopping drugs getting in and making sure prisons are in a decent and humane condition. He stated that progress is being made in rehabilitation however, prisons themselves are only a part of it. To address homelessness amongst prison leavers, his department has committed £6 million for ground-breaking housing pilots in three prisons across London, Bristol and Leeds.


Professor Fergus McNeill – PowerPoint presentation

Professor McNeill used Scottish terminology in describing the rehabilitation puzzle by calling it a rehabilitation ‘fankle’, meaning tangle. The way we engage with people who are being punished is critically important for their prospects of returning successfully, and if they can’t return successfully then we damage society for all.

Professor McNeill discussed ‘reintegrative momentum’ and how it is difficult to generate and very easily lost by penal agents in three penal moments: 1) when we sentence, 2) when we implement sentences and 3) when sentences end.


He explored a model of punishment that places rehabilitation at its centre:

Professor McNeill underlined that there is a need for rehabilitation to be the process of generating and sustaining reintegrative momentum. He argued that there are 4 forms of rehabilitation:

  1. Personal rehabilitation – How the offender needs to change in order to be fit for reintegration once released, for example employment training.
  2. Judicial rehabilitation – The process of restoring one’s rights, which is critically important to rehabilitation.
  3. Social rehabilitation – The way in which the offender is welcomed back into the community.
  4. Moral and political rehabilitation – The process of dialogue between the person, victim, civil society, state and community about what is required to make rehabilitation happen.

He highlighted that a lot of the time in criminal justice, we make the mistake of working on the offender when we talk about rehabilitation. It is about the process of mutual recognition between state, citizen, civil society and people involved.


Dr Philippa Tomczak – PowerPoint presentation

Dr Tomczak addressed the evidence from international bodies, focussing on international guidance.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment:

  • Warned the MoJ in 2016 that: “unless determined action is taken to significantly reduce the current prison population, the regime improvements envisaged by the authorities’ reform agenda will remain unattainable…”.

The 2013 United Nations Committee Against Torture report on the UK:

  • “Urged the State party to strengthen its efforts and set concrete targets to reduce the high level of imprisonment and overcrowding in places of detention, through the wider use of non-custodial measures as an alternative to imprisonment…”.

Dr Tomczak placed emphasis on the fact that we have the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe, followed by Scotland. The prison population has doubled in the last decade against static/falling crime rates, which according to Dr Tomczak has been caused by replacing welfare with workfare – the idea of benefits being conditional on attempting to secure work.

She highlighted that although the penal voluntary sector can provide a valuable and distinctive space for supporting criminalised individuals, it can’t create resources on its own. It can’t create affordable housing for all the people leaving prison every year nor can it create employers who have an understanding of the difficulties ex-offenders face.



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