Some stories stay with you a long time. One is an article I wrote about a prisoner who was on a National Grid scheme aimed at rehabilitating young offenders. By contrast, the next week I interviewed a senior figure at Ofgem.
When asked what he enjoys most about the job he’s been doing for the last six weeks, Paul Masters doesn’t hesitate. “It’s being accepted as part of the team. They’re all willing to help me and give me a chance. No-one here judges me.”
It’s an answer you might hope to get from any 21-year-old starting a new job, but it means a lot more coming from Paul, an inmate at Reading Prison.
The fact that he arrives at Beddington substation each morning to do a day’s work, while serving the final few weeks of a two and a half year sentence, is thanks to a pioneering National Grid programme aimed at rehabilitating young offenders. In three years, the company has trained and found employment for over 200 offenders. Niall Jassim is one of the project co-ordinators.
“The big benefits it’s delivering are undeniable,” he says. “There’s a re-offending rate of just 7 per cent for former prisoners who’ve been on our programme, compared with the national average amongst young offenders of more than 70 per cent.
“I believe we have a social responsibility to help get these people back on the right track, but there’s a strong financial argument for doing so too: it costs the tax payer around £36,000 to keep someone in prison for a year, and quarter of a million to take them through the justice system each time they re-offend.”
Paul signed up to the programme because he saw it as a way of getting his life back together when he’s released.
“This is a great chance to better myself,” he says. “I’ve always liked learning new skills and I know that the more I learn the better off I’ll be in life. I’ve had some very routine jobs in the past but at a substation every day is different.
“Everyone has gone out of their way to stop and explain what they’re doing. And they’re always willing to go over something a second time for me.”
It’s not the first opportunity Paul’s taken advantage of since going to prison in his determination to turn his life around. He signed up for a Prince’s Trust course that involved charity work and which taught him valuable team skills, and was asked to become an assistant team leader to help others through the course.
“I last went inside when I was 18 and I’m now 21. I’ve done a lot of thinking and growing up in that time. I’ve missed out on a lot of family life; my little boy was three months old when I went to prison and now he’s nearly three. He’s a big incentive not to mess up again and I’m really confident that this new job is the start of something. My family have said they don’t want anything to do with me if I go to prison again and this is the last time I intend to be inside.”
When he arrives back at Reading at the end of each day, many of his fellow inmates are interested to hear what he’s been doing. “A lot of them are envious that I’m working for a big company and given responsible jobs to do,” he says.
His mum also questions him a lot about his work. “It gives me a real buzz that I’m learning something new and that people are interested to hear about it,” says Paul. “My girlfriend thinks the opportunity I’ve been given is brilliant too. I’m not sure what would have happened if I hadn’t been given this chance. I feel as if I’ve got a future now and we’re talking about getting married next year.”
Niall hopes the rehabilitation programme will continue to expand. “Everyone I speak to who’s had any interaction with these lads says how keen and hard working they are. They’ve made a mistake and they’re paying for it, but should they be paying for it for the rest of their lives? Without training, it’s very difficult for them to find a job when they’re released. This gives them the chance of a career and gets them out of a downward spiral.”
Image: Richard Sibley