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UK: Plans for prisoners to work 40-hour week

6th October 2010

Announcements made in the UK this week about plans to get prisoners working have met with mixed reactions.

The plans would see most prisoners expected to work a full 40-hour week instead of spending their days in "enforced idleness" in prison cells. Instilling a regime of hard work is among the aims. Part of the prisoners' earnings would go to their victims, and part to the prisoner's families to reduce their dependency on benefits. The Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust support the plans announced.

However, the Prison Governors' Association has issued a press release saying that the low skills, low educational attainments, along with histories of substance misuse and mental health issues mean that the plan might not be successful.

IPRT would very much welcome proposals to introduce paid work in Irish prisons in a similar way to that which is being proposed in the UK. However, the extent to which such proposals would be workable in chronically overcrowded Irish prisons is less clear. Until we reduce overcrowding in Irish prisons, any positive improvements in regimes within the prison system are of limited effect.

Engagement in purposeful activities while in prison, whether work or education, reduces inter-prisoner violence, and has a very positive effect on reducing reoffending following release. It gives prisoners the skills and experience for life without crime post-release. Furthermore, a lack of access to purposeful activity in prisons is a factor in drug use among prisoners. It’s a commonsense argument: give prisoners something meaningful and useful to do instead of sentencing them to “enforced idleness”.

Participation rates in Irish prisons

  • Those prisons which are less overcrowded have higher rates of education participation among prisoners (Arbour Hill: 57.2%, Portlaoise 54%; Midlands 46%); Cork Prison, which is as overcrowded as Mountjoy, but which has good education and workshop facilities available, and has a good participation rate (43.2%). Mountjoy has a participation rate of just 18.9. (Source: IPS Annual Report 2009)
  • Work and vocational training currently available in Irish prisons include printing, production of Braille books, woodwork, metalwork and construction, along with prison catering, cleaning and laundry services.

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