Many people have questioned our decision to commission and feature products made by people who are in prison. It's an area fraught with ethical complexity – from how makers in prison are paid, to to what consent means when you're in prison, to the over representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic people within the criminal justice system, to what many of us think about crime, punishment and retribution. There are plenty of experts who know more than us about these issues (we particularly recommend the work of Baroness Lawrence via the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust and the highly informative Justice podcast with Edwina Grosvenor) but we felt it important to set out our perspective.
We work with three groups that support people who are either in or at risk of prison (see our Maker page). They all operate in slightly different ways but from the same underlying premise which is that creative, purposeful work can be utterly transformative – in terms of self-esteem, belief, mental health and outcomes after prison. Two of them are charities and one of them is a pioneering training scheme set up by the London College of Fashion and the Ministry of Justice (which, for transparency, is who we pay).
If we see criminal convictions as a result of things that have happened to people (often many years of trauma, abuse or addiction) rather than as individual events, to simply blame offenders for misdemeanours is to ignore the complex interweaving of influences that can lead to crime. We believe that treating people with humanity and providing opportunity is one of the clearest ways to help people break the cycle of crime and create lives with dignity and autonomy. But a lot of people take issue with the fact that there is a cap on the maximum amount of money prisoners in the UK can earn and believe that, as that cap is below the minimum wage, our commissioning of their work makes us complicit in their exploitation.
From our point of view, we pay more for our prison-made products, as a total of retail price, than we do for many other items. It's not a money-maker for Aerende. It's certainly not about cheap labour. Of course this doesn't detract from the systemic issues around prisoner exploitation but is a distinction we feel is significant, especially when the organisations we work with are not profit-making businesses, one of which has a specific focus on providing professional qualifications and work experience with a potential job after release through the Release On Temporary Licence scheme.
We spoke with Ben Gunn, an ex-offender and criminal justice campaigner about the programmes we commission and he was constructively critical. Having the conversation is a vital first step, he says. But he sees the value of work in prison mainly in relation to employment outcomes after prison and not whether or not it improves mental health or wellbeing while in prison (all of our projects punch above their weight when it comes to the latter). "Excellent training is fairly meaningless," he told us. "You can't pay the rent with social skills." But he acknowledges that it is not a black and white issue. And so, as with most things in the world of Aerende, we are navigating an untrodden path. We couldn't find a single other non-profit organisation in the UK commissioning prisoners (though there are many working with them on the kinds of creative programmes we are supporting and many for-profit companies using prison labour). And so we navigate these tricky issues with openness and a desire to be genuinely impactful while always assessing the potential pitfalls. As with many topics in the social enterprise sector, two things can be true at once. It is true that prisoners do not earn a minimum wage. But it is also true that training and professional development are valuable if not vital steps on a path to building a new life. So, as outsiders without much influence to change prison pay scales, should we not support schemes that try to treat people with humanity and respect while also offering opportunities for their lives beyond prison?
Of course, the people we need to ask this question of are the makers themselves. All the testimonials from participants on the projects we support reported their immense value and transformative effects. We will, of course, be encouraging our partner makers in prisons to demonstrate their value and are arranging trips so that we can hear first-hand from people with lived experience of being in prison and on the training schemes we work with what it means to them. This first-person insight is the most important thing for us. If our makers report benefit from the creative process, that will always take priority over binary and nuance-lacking political arguments.
To sum up, employment and training is not just abut discouraging people from reoffending. It's about creating opportunities for people who may not have had many, and providing a pathway to dignity and autonomy post prison. In our long-term fantasy, we would love to set up a project that provides nurturing, creative and purposeful work and support for people who have just left prison with a clear outlet and route to market via Aerende (we know our partners at Fine Cell Work have been looking into this as are Making for Change). But until progressive philanthropists come knocking at our door to help us fund such a project, we will be working with carefully chosen projects and charities that are seeing the humanity in people in prison, and helping them to find their own meaning.