Inside the Suffolk prison scheme that gives men a second chance

HMP Highpoint's head of reducing reoffending Steve Phillips Picture: HMP Highpoint

HMP Highpoint's head of reducing reoffending Steve Phillips Picture: HMP Highpoint - Credit: Archant

HMP Highpoint and LM Barry work together to give prisoners a range of employability skills and qualifications, including forklift truck driving, and health and safety.

The inmates at HMP Highpoint learn a number of skills through the programme with LM Barry, which hel

The inmates at HMP Highpoint learn a number of skills through the programme with LM Barry, which helps them become employable upon release. Pictured here is LM Barry's factory in London Picture: LM Barry - Credit: Archant

For the past decade, one Suffolk prison has been working alongside a recycling company in order to equip its prisoners with invaluable skills that will help them find long-term employment upon release.

Those involved in the scheme say it’s incredibly important to give ex-offenders a second change, and reveal it’s proved hugely beneficial to those who’ve already taken part

Steve Phillips has been head of reducing reoffending at HMP Highpoint, a Category C men’s prison in Stradishall, near Newmarket, for 14 years. His job focuses on finding out why men reoffend, and how he can prevent that happening.

“There’s many different factors which can help a man reduce his risk of reoffending - but it’s statistically proven that if a man can go into employment, or some kind of formal training, upon release, it significantly reduces his risk of reoffending,” he says.

Prior to lockdown, the men at HMP Highpoint would sort and recycle tonnes of fabric. Pictured here i

Prior to lockdown, the men at HMP Highpoint would sort and recycle tonnes of fabric. Pictured here is LM Barry's factory in London Picture: LM Barry - Credit: Archant

One company that helps skill up prisoners for life after release is LM Barry.

Based in London, LM Barry is a textiles recycling company that was founded in 1985 by Lawrence and Joy Barry. Their son Ross now works within the organisation, and explains what it is exactly they do – and how the partnership with the HMP Highpoint came about.

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“Our main business was manufacturing those textile banks you see everywhere – we now have 500 placed in and around London and the Home Counties. Councils have the textile banks and local residents use them to donate their old clothes. We then go and collect the clothes, weight them, and pay the council based on what we take.

“We’ve then got a team of sorters who go through it, and we tend to find that around 50-60% is good enough to be reworn. A lot of that gets sent off to the markets in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

“Then the rest that’s not good enough is recycled. If it’s wool or synthetic-based, it gets shredded, pulled back to fibre and then used as insulation in cars and airplanes. It can also be used as mattress filling and carpet underlay.”

So where exactly does the prison service fit into this?

“Cleaning rags have always been about, and in order to manufacture them, it’s just a case of removing any buttons from the fabrics and cutting them into shapes before they’re packed. We sell around 150 tonnes of this a week within the UK industries. The prison service initially contacted us and said they were looking for some work that their men could do, and asked if we had anything.

“At that point, we were operating our own cutting systems and had about 20 to 30 people who did that job. We thought it was a great idea to branch out what we were doing, as we were expanding the company, so we started with a prison in Kent first – and it worked really well.”

Prior to this, LM Barry would send its textiles abroad to countries such as Poland and Pakistan – which only contributed to the growing problem of greenhouse gas emissions that inevitably play a huge part in global warming.

“We pay the prisons to cut it for us, and it just moves from one government body to another. From our point of view, partnering with the prison service was so much better because we kept everything in the UK, and therefore we weren’t creating unnecessary carbon miles,” adds Ross.

With a number of prisons now under its belt, the partnership between LM Barry and HMP Highpoint came into being around 12 years ago – and has been going strong ever since.

“Prior to lockdown back in March, we had three workshops with the capacity to employ upwards of 150 men,” Steve adds.

“You’ll have some working on a very basic skill level, right up to those working as forklift truck drivers. The beauty of working in those workshops is having the men progress through the stages and pick up new skills and training opportunities along the way, which will help develop them into a prospective employee.”

So how exactly does a prisoner get involved with the programme, and what does he do once he’s on it?

“In general, there is an appetite for it within the prison. The men who join us will start by sorting the textiles, cutting them, and then using the forklift truck to help distribute them. Depending on their attitude and willingness to learn, they could progress right the way through and get a full set of qualifications.”

Just last year, Steve and the team at HMP Highpoint deployed the PEDPS – Prison Education Dynamic Purchasing System – in order to refresh parts of the workshop and bring in new qualifications.

These include warehouse and distribution, forklift truck driving, first aid at work, and health and safety.

“If a man goes right the way through, he could leave here with a forklift truck certificate, a first aid certificate, a Level 2 Warehouse and Distribution qualification, and a health and safety certificate. We figure if a man walks out of here with a well-rounded CV with those sorts of qualifications on them, it makes him highly-attractive to almost any organisation. It could be Tesco, it could be LM Barry - it could be anywhere.

“What we’ve tried to do is adopt the philosophy that these aren’t prisoners working in a workshop - instead, we treat them as employees and try to develop them as people. Then once they’re released, they leave with hopefully a reasonably good skillset which will help them thrive within the community.”

Prior to lockdown, the 160 prisoners at HMP Highpoint who were enrolled on the programme would sort anywhere between 80 and 90 tonnes of textiles every week.

“We have 10 prisons across the country, and our traditional business model with the prisons was that they would run it with their own instructor, and we’d train them how to do it. But with Highpoint, it was so successful, it got to the point where we had three workshops there. There’s just so much work being produced, so we needed to have someone there from our end overseeing it, and that’s where our colleague Tom is,” says Ross.

“It makes it so much easier, as we’ve always got a point of contact, the prison has that contact and the guys inside have that connection too. They all know Tom and they all get on well with him. They also know that as and when they come to leave, they can talk to our team in London and see if there’s any jobs going.”

With such a positive partnership between the two, it comes as no surprise that a handful of prisoners have later gone on to work for LM Barry upon their release.

“We’ve had 12 of our men end up working for LM Barry - and we actually had one recently get in touch, just to let us know that he was doing really well,” says Steve. “A lot of those men have gone on to pastures new since, but it’s that initial job placement at the point of discharge which helps them reduce their risk of coming back to prison.”

With the ongoing pandemic currently reducing the number of men who can attend the workshops, Steve hopes things will eventually get back up to running again soon, so many more men can have the same opportunities as those who came before them.

“The workshops have been closed since March, with a very small skeleton crew keeping things ticking over. We’re looking at hopefully expanding delivery and workshops when we can – making sure everything will be very carefully risk-assessed and socially-distanced. For me, giving someone a second chance is a real driver in all that I do.”

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