Recycling Lives does what it says on the tin and includes a social welfare charity that endeavours to transform and ‘recycle’ lives; namely, those of vulnerable people who need a helping hand to work their way back to independent living. This includes the homeless, ex-armed forces personnel and, more challengingly, ex-offenders.
In February this year, the prison population was reported to be more than 85,000, with England and Wales having the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe.
David Cameron announced reforms that aimed to see prison inmates as “potential assets to be harnessed”, promising the prison education budget would be protected and quality teachers recruited. The then prime minister said the failure to rehabilitate offenders costs £13 billion a year because of “scandalous” rates of reoffending.
Preventing reoffending is at the heart of Recycling Lives’ work with ex-offenders. Indeed, the company’s relationship begins before the inmates have left prison.
Recycling Lives Social Enterprise currently has HMP Academies in six UK prisons (see box on page 48), where serving offenders are given the opportunity to learn how to carry out various recycling operations such as dismantling TVs while they are still in prison.
HMP Kirkham, an open prison near Blackpool, was where it all started according to Alasdair Jackson, director of corporate social responsibility and operations at Recycling Lives.
“About 10 years ago, we were approached by the prison, saying ‘We have men who want to come and work with you’. It wasn’t something we had previously considered, but after discussions with the prison we decided to run it on a trial basis,” recalls Jackson. “However, we very quickly realised that we were getting fantastic employees who just needed the opportunity to prove themselves.”
The story doesn’t end there
“About four years ago, we got so inundated with TVs that we had to look into alternative ways to process them, and the suggestion came that we replicate what we do at the warehouse in a workshop within Kirkham,” continues the director. “We started off with only five men, along with one of our supervisors who dealt with any issues that arose – and it thrived. It added another dimension to the charity’s scope and it got our TVs dismantled.”
Jackson points out that the trial’s success made the company realise it had a potentially scalable model that would have a sustainable and meaningful impact on offender rehabilitation. “We needed much higher volumes of waste in order to run a regular scheme, so we pursued more contracts to make that a reality,” he adds. “Once we’d established a regular level of demand, we were able to develop a structured Academy model and offer more training and employment opportunities to marginalised individuals.”
A great incentive for prison inmates who are employed by the social enterprise is the amount of money they can earn. Recycling Lives offers a considerably larger wage than typical prison work.
“It can make all the difference to these men,” explains Jackson.
“So when they dismantle TVs for us, they know that the more they take apart, the more they can earn. Some of it can be spent in the prison, but more importantly some can be saved. Once they are given a release on temporary licence, they are given training on the importance of managing a household budget effectively, so they can begin saving properly for their future after prison.” The corporate social responsibility and operations director goes on to point out that not having enough money to start out with after their release is very often a significant factor in reoffending.
Jackson states that there are four boxes that need to be ticked for a former inmate on their release; accommodation, job, finances and relationships. “By having saved a few hundred pounds, one of the boxes will be ticked. And if you’ve got a job lined up with Recycling Lives, we also become a family to them,” he adds.
Nor is it just men who work with the social enterprise.
“The first five Academy participants at Kirkham were men, and the current accommodation is for men, but just over two months ago we opened a Recycling Lives HMP Academy at Styal prison in Cheshire, a closed category prison for women. The workshop focuses on dismantling computers and the women working for us are unbelievable; they are so passionate about what they’re doing,” says Jackson enthusiastically.
Recycling Lives plans to increase its HMP Academy Programme from six prisons to 10 by the end of 2017.
“When fully deployed, our Recycling Lives HMP Academies will enable us to provide employment opportunities to over 250 men and women,” Jackson predicts.
The future for continued prisoner participation in the initiative also looks promising.
“In the prisons we are currently working in, we are generally very well known, and there is always a queue of people waiting to work with us because of the opportunities we offer them both in and out of prison. Word spreads fast. The Queen’s Award was a terrific win and momentum gathers from there.”
Recycling Lives were not only awarded a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development in 2010, it scooped the award for the second time in 2014 when the company launched its flat panel display recycling and employment project at HMP Kirkham. Ex-offenders can also get qualifications while working for Recycling Lives. “Our training department provides NVQs in recycling and forklift training, which is available on their release,” adds Jackson.
Support is also given when it comes to looking for a job.
“We have a dedicated member of staff who coaches our academy graduates into work, interviewing them at the start to get a better understanding of their individual situation. It gives us a snapshot of their likely requirements in order to successfully complete the programme.
“We might not be an employment agent, but we know it’s tough approaching a company looking for work as an ex-offender and often facing a lot of distrust.
“However, an endorsement of character and work ethic from a reputable, Queen’s Award-winning company can help alleviate some of that distrust. Ex-offenders who have gone through our academy programme have a much higher chance of getting a job, as well as having certificates to prove their worth.
“We have a success rate of 94%, although this is based on a small sample size.” The many intangible benefits of Recycling Lives, however, are hard to calculate. “The programme is proven to reduce reoffending rates, and that can have a massive ripple effect on the wider community, for example returning a role model to their family and inspiring the next generation. Our primary aim is to stop people from re-offending and that has gone very well. It is down to more opportunities, so the more companies we can forge partnerships with, the better.”
When Jackson says ‘partnerships’, he means winning contracts which will give ex-offenders the opportunity to work.
“Many companies are keen to put something back into society. They don’t have the resources to provide this sort of training themselves, but they do produce a lot of waste. By contracting Recycling Lives’ total waste management services, they are actually contributing to the programme, as Recycling Lives are able to provide participants with more opportunities for development.
“We are not funded by grants; so it’s commercial money that runs it. We’d like to be in 50 prisons, but it has to be done properly. We don’t want to do it half-heartedly,” emphasises the ops director, before pausing to reflect: “I would have laughed at you a few years ago if you had said that I would be working so closely with ex-offenders. Now it’s part of who I am.”
“I was arrested in Spain six years ago and prosecuted for importing drugs. After I spent three years in a Spanish jail, I came back to England and spent time in Wandsworth and Buckley Hall. Now I am at Kirkham. A year ago, I came to work for Recycling Lives where I work within the transport department for scrap vehicle collections.
“I have another eight months to go and while I have to go back to prison every night, it’s not so bad. I could be working in the prison every day, so to come here and find normality is great. Recycling Lives also helped me to get a car and I go home one weekend a month to spend time with my nine-year-old son. For his birthday, I plan to take him to see the Harry Potter exhibition with the Hogwarts Express and everything. My future is looking a lot brighter now. I’m a 47-year-old man and the last thing I want is to go back to prison. With Recycling Lives’ help, we can get people to look at us in a different way.”
- 45% of adults are reconvicted within one year of release, costing the UK between £9.5 and £13 billion every year
- 47% of prisoners have no qualifications
- 66% of prisoners report being unemployed in the four weeks before they entered custody