Entrepreneurs in Prison

The front page of the Metro this morning carried a story about prisoners being used as workers by the likes of M&S and other big firms.

The Independent and many other papers also have the story. I’ve not dared look to see what the Daily Mail think about it.

Predictably there are already concerns being aired that inmates (who are paid between £7 to £20 a week) will be taking jobs away from law-abiding citizens because they can work for much less.

That’s a valid concern, but one that’s partly addressed by paying inmates properly.

They wouldn’t get access to all of the funds whilst they’re in prison – there’s not much to spend money on in there. But on their release they’ll at least have some savings.

If you’re released from prison with sod all you’re far more likely to re-offend. Big businesses shouldn’t be able to take advantage of inmates as cheap labour.

Then there’s the argument that prisoners shouldn’t be allowed to work or make money or have any sort of help not available to the man on the street. This is a silly argument. They’re in prison as punishment, not for punishment.

Believe me, being locked away from society and your loved ones and losing your freedom is plenty punishment enough. If you don’t give them help to get their lives back on track then they’re only going to re-offend and cost society even more – and not just the financial cost of courts, police and keeping them in prison. But the costs of the crimes committed, the victims lives affected, the broken homes and the knock-on effect to their children and families.

Yes, it feels wrong to give help to wrong-doers. But to not do so is a knee-jerk reaction.


In fact, I think this “getting prisoners to work” initiative should go a big step further. There are lots of parallels between some forms of criminality and entrepreneurship.

Take drug dealing for example. Many people who are drug dealers start in their late teens when they see all their mates buying bags of weed for £15. They realise they can buy in bulk at a lower price, sell some to their friends and make a little bit of profit and have their own personal stash paid for.

It’s illegal, definitely. But isn’t it also the definition of entrepreneurialism? Spotting an opportunity to make money and going for it?

The paralells continue further up the drug trafficking industry. Trafficking gangs with couriers flying ectasy from the UK to the US realise they have willing mules coming back empty handed. Give them cocaine to bring back from the US to the UK! In a boardroom that would be called “sweating the assets”.

Calculated risks, buying in volume and selling in smaller quantities at a higher price, dealing with competition, paying workers, strategic alliances. The list of parallels go on and on.

There are some very very good entrepreneurs in prison. Now imagine they used those  powers for good instead of evil!

Inmates should be given an opportunity to pitch business ideas and the best of them should get help and funding on their release to make them a reality. We want these people to be productive members of society, right? And if they can create jobs and wealth too then that’s got to be a Good Thing.

In open prisons there are many “white collar” criminals. HMP Ford for example is full of people with extensive business knowledge and I bet they’d be more than willing to spend their time mentoring other inmates and helping them construct a business plan.

We’ve got the raw ingredients to make this happen. All we need now is the political will.

Duane Jackson - Founder

As Founder of KashFlow, Duane writes primarily about the trials and tribulations of starting and growing a successful business. Having handled KashFlow’s PR internally for so many years he can’t resist writing a bit about that too.

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  • http://www.annaliesemorgan.com Annaliese Morgan

    Just a quick one to say, I really enjoyed reading this post, an engaging piece of writing with a refreshing view. For what its worth, I agree with you and I dare say a lot could be gained form inmates’ mistakes and experiences, not only to better ourselves but business and ideas also. Haven’t we all got the same goal?, i.e. going forwards not backwards No one has a right to judge another, this country needs as much talent and inspiration as it can get, not more people being blinkered and missing that point completely just because they’ve being in prison.

    • Duane Jackson – Founder & CEO

      Thanks, Annaliese.
      I hope business is going well since we met a few months back at the YES event.

  • http://www.cheaperaccountant@hotmail.co.uk cheap accountant

    This is a very interesting and bold article and I haven’t read such ideas being pitched like this for inmates. You do however raise some important points about helping released prisoners realise their potential in the workplace, which I do think will significantly contribute towards reducing re-offending.

    The only thing that is difficult to judge is the willingness of offenders to participate and to be fully engaged with this process.

    • Duane Jackson – Founder & CEO

      Hi Elaine,

      Re engagement, your’e right. Some – perhaps many – wouldn’t be fully engaged with it.

      Hence the need to have the write proper plans and put the effort in to pitch a panel before getting mentoring/funding resources.

      You have to be committed to go through that process. And it’d have to be a decent and sustainable idea to pass the panel,

  • http://danversbaillieu.blogspot.com Danvers

    Duane – love the point you are making – it is just the sort of thinking we need. However, the economics of drug dealing are apparently not that great – have you read Freakonomics on the subject of “why do drug dealers still live with their moms?”: http://www.freakonomics.com/books/freakonomics/chapter-excerpts/chapter-3/

  • http://joshuamarch.com Joshua March

    Completely agree with this sentiment. I’ve actually read about a programme in the US which finds ‘entrepreneurial’ prisoners and puts them through an intensive business training course whilst in prison, with a lot of successful businessmen who come in to be role models; then on release they help them either set up their own business or go for job interviews etc (including buying them a suit). 3 years out of prison and they had only a 5% recidivism rate, with the rest having their own businesses or a job. Tried to google to find the programme but no luck on a quick search. Would be keen to support something similar in the UK!

  • http://example.org JK

    First, it’s prison. So, y’know, punishment on some level. In addition to rehabilitation. So my gut reaction is that I’d rather see more educational programs going on. Especially since a lot of “entrepreneurship” is really just either scammy behavior or flat-out fantasy (my start-up’s the next Facebook!). Especially when the education isn’t in place.

    That said, I’m not entirely opposed to the idea. But, as a tax-payer, the idea that someone is getting free room and board on my dime while they make a good income grates a bit. What does it cost to keep someone incarcerated for a year these days? $40k? If the inmate were to repay this — the sort of rent and bills every other entrepreneur has to pay — then the idea would be more palatable.

    • Duane Jackson – Founder & CEO

      You make a good point about repaying the cost for room and board.

      I think as long as BigCo is paying at least minimum wage for the work then perhaps something should be deducted from that income before the inmate gets it.

      The point being that the tax payer and inmate benefit from the work being done as opposed to shareholders of BigCo getting cheap labour.

  • Jeremy Russell

    When someone goes to prison it’s generally for a good reason, after the jury and trial and all that, it’s safe to say then that these people forfeit their rights. That’s what happens when you go against the rules of a society you belong to. I think everyone can agree with that. The trick is balance, sure it’s not fair to blanket treat inmates all the same, however they cost us money to not just capitol-punishment the lot of them (a bad idea for moral reasons.) So they need to pay off their debt. But to go as far as to say they should be treated as if being away from everyone is their only punishment and that’s already bad enough is a bit naive. Many people in prison did really bad things, like rape and murder, try telling the victims family in those cases that the inmate that killed their kid gets to get an education, a job, some savings for his release, cable TV, food, etc, etc. Tell them that and see what reaction you get.

    To be completely fair they did bad things, we need to keep that in mind, also the cheap labor could be used to help society. Cheap furniture/clothing/household items, etc for low income families comes to mind.

    I think the real solution is to be transparent about how much things cost, and we need to keep in mind that we can’t allow for slave labor of prisoners just for those profits to go into CEO’s pockets. If we are to do that then it needs to go to the potential rehabilitation of the inmate, and in dropping the costs so lower income people can save money on essentials that are made by inmates hands.

    PS: This is definitely one of the most thought provoking articles relating to inmates I’ve read in a long time.

  • Karl

    Prison is meant to be more about rehabilitation than punishment these days, getting up in a morning and doing a days work is part of that rehabilitation. Punishing someone for years is not going to make them change their ways.

    The only way to get work for prisoners that has any meaning or value to society is to bring that work in from the outside. Otherwise the work given to prisoners would be meaningless repetitive nonsense that would benefit no one.

    In order bring work in from the outside there has to be some profit element in the deal otherwise it just would not be viable or worth while for any company to consider doing.

    As for paying prisoners more money for the work they do, this is debatable, if they where paid more, then the incentive for outside companies to bring work into the confines of a prison would simply disappear. Having worked with a company that uses prison labour in this way, it appears the costs in working inside a prison to the outside company are quite extensive due to the added security restriction etc.

    I think that before we start berating companies for using prison labour and “making money out of prisoners” we ought to consider the fact that many UK prisons are run by private companies that earn a large fortune out of running these prisons. Judging by the size of the companies I saw using the prison workforce the companies running the prisons earn many times more then those simply bringing work into the prisons, who tend to be quite small companies in my experience.

    It should also be noted the prisons have targets set by the government to bring this type of work into the prisons, this is driven by European law and human rights. I.e its against a prisoner human rights to be kept idle and locked up there cells. From my experience the prisoners would rather work through their time then sit idle.

    • Jeremy Russell

      I like your point about human rights and being kept at idle, like solitary confinement being worse then being in the yard, etc. It’s an interesting angle to view things at. Thanks.

  • Duane Jackson – Founder & CEO

    There’s lots more interesting comment and debate on this article over on HackerNews

  • http://www.comspeccomputers.co.uk Mark Anderson

    Excellent blog post, and I think if the country would stop judging and punishing forever, they’d see that ‘there for the grace of god go I’ is valid !! Stigma, snobbiness and general fakeness keeps some very goods individuals down, and that is not good for any country.

  • Matthew

    Prisoners should work, with 100% of ££s generated going to the victim(s).

  • Matthew

    Actually I would go a step further. All healthy prisoners should be made to work a 38 hr week, with all ££s generated going to the victim(s) or a designated charity. This income should be taxed as well. Prisoners who refuse to work should have tvs etc removed, until they comply. This would hopefully, help to reduce the prison population, as they realise that prison is no longer a place to do nothing all day.

  • http://www.lyst.biz Bob Austin

    Just wanted to add a to Duane’s comments to say that that everyone who has anything to do with offenders knows that, as he says, most re-offending is caused by the lack of support, nowhere to live and no money when they come out of prison and I can’t understand why the authorities do so little to address that – it would probably the single most effective measure. The other problem is that the focus of Probation in recent years has changed from helping offenders to protecting the public. On the subject of entrepreneurs/self employment, we have been trying to get to work in prisons for some years, but they make it really difficult. However, I can tell you that we (my charity is called LYST) now have an agreement to deliver a business programme at Highdown prison and also at a women’s prison, so maybe there is some progress??

  • http://www.yahoo.com/5a02113b478e4d386533a6d468dcd6f8f7e0c1d3 source

    Is it fine to place part of this on my personal weblog if I post a reference to this website?

  • http://royallondonsociety.org.uk Robert Kissin

    Dear All,
    In the mid nineties I initiated a programme called the BELTS programme to offer inmates the opportunity to build their own business post release. We provided funding for entrepreneurial ideas and mentoring. So successful was the programme that we put it under the wing of Royal London Society, the UK’s oldest charity concerned with the welfare of prisoners and ex offenders. After four years the programme was spun off as an independent charity now called Start UP which has received recognition throughout the prison service for its contribution to helping to incubate and develop businesses which offenders have initiated. Start Up provides business advice, funding and mentoring. There is no need to re-invent the programme it already exists. I suggest you contact Start Up ( Juliet Hope) and get together with her.

  • Ben

    I have read this a couple of times and all I can say is… Duane, you need to be Prime Minister…! You talk more sense than the current clowns and you are willing to take complex calculated steps. Way to go!

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