Printing in prison could help industry if properly placed

Adam Hooker
Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Four years ago I visited Maidstone prison - not at Her Majesty's pleasure, I hasten to add, but for a feature - and came away impressed by what they were trying to achieve. The print shop manager told me at the time that the goal wasn't necessarily to produce high-quality work, but to produce rehabilitated prisoners, equipped with the skills to become a productive member of society upon release.

The aim of prison is to better the person as much as punish them. So rather than simply doing their time and returning to the same life that landed them in prison, the inmates learned a trade and picked up qualifications, such as NVQs that would help them in the job market.

One initiative Maidstone prison was keen to pursue was work ing with commercial printers to help resettle ex-prisoners after their release, in return for offering the prison print shop’s services as a trade house. The thinking was that local printers could get a good price on overspill work while providing employment to help integrate rehabilitating former inmates with society.

How far that initiative progressed, I don’t know. However, the effect of the recession on the industry would have significantly reduced employment opportunities in the outside world, making any scheme that could help them climb that first rung on the employment ladder all the more important.

However, this utopian view of prison print shop and commercial printers working in harmony seems to have been shattered by the investment in a new five-colour press at Maidstone and the announcement that the prison is competing for commercial print work. Printers’ frustration at this is understandable – everybody in the industry is painfully aware that there is too much capacity and too much competition already, with commoditisation of print the inevitable result.

There are currently 12 prison in-plants in the UK. If each of them were to achieve a turnover of £1m, that is £12m of turnover the industry could be missing out on. And if it comes down to a straight fight on price, one suspects that the prison would win. The fact that the print shop is one element of a much larger institution will lead many to question how their overheads are determined. They may also ask whether water, electricity and heating costs are calculated and paid for by the print shop, or if these are paid for by the taxpayer.

Then there is the crucial question of business rates and staff overheads. Even if we assume that the prison has to pay the former, this creates a discrepancy between an inmate paid the minimum wage and the salary of a time-served printer. All of which serves to  generate the feeling of inequality that is so evident in the reaction of our readers.

Surprisingly, the BPIF actually works with the prisons. It could be argued that this is counterproductive for the majority of its members – but maybe the BPIF has the right idea, as long as that work is put into place properly. Rather than competing against printers, the prison print shops should be there to assist the industry – as was the stated aim on my visit  –  because, if it doesn’t, there might not be an industry for the inmates to join.

– PrintWeek senior reporter Adam Hooker

– You can read a PrintWeek Briefing on this subject here

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