Published 20 August 2018
This week Manon and I set off to find out about an employment programme operating out of Armley prison in Leeds. Tempus Novo have built up an impressive network of businesses (mainly, but not exclusively small and medium sized companies) willing to offer a step on the employment ladder to ex-offenders who want a fresh start. Key to Tempus Novo’s success to date has been the attitudes of those it takes on. There is no compulsion: young men and women who’ve served their time and want to turn their lives around have to just have the will to do it and the mental humility to accept the jobs on offer. From warehouses and distribution to manufacturing and clerical work, Tempus Novo is identifying opportunities, matching up ex-offenders and, perhaps most importantly, supporting both offender and employers through the process.
In my view, key to the recruitment of both businesses and offenders are the regular tours of Armley prison: a large, formerly notorious, Victorian prison just outside the centre of Leeds. Officially a category B local prison it houses a large number of offenders on remand and sentenced prisoners. Steve and Val are both former prison officers, and it is this (in my view) that makes the project work so successfully. As Val took us round the prison he knew most officers, and a fair few inmates by name. Those he doesn’t know, once they’ve established he’s not the prison governor, want to know how he might be able to help them when they get out. And the pattern is astonishingly formulaic – “I really need to sort this out, I can’t be coming back in here again”, is greeted with a business card and an offer of support from their office, less than 50 paces from the prison gate. It was also, almost to the letter, what Val and Steve told us was the driving force behind most of their referrals.
My favourite moment of the day was when Val asked us if we’d been in a prison before. I hadn’t. But Manon confounded his expectations entirely. She hadn’t just visited a prison, she’d worked in two as a family support worker. Her ‘time,’ chalked up as a family support worker in both HMP Wandsworth and HMP & YOI Parc, meant the day was probably much more familiar territory. From the constant noise, banging, shouting, to the unlocking and locking of A LOT of gates and doors. So, for me, it was less familiar. Easily enough to keep me on the straight and narrow. My takeaway was the noise, heat and claustrophobia of very small cells which seemed, in the main, devoid of personal effects or home comforts.
Never have I appreciated a walk home in the sunshine and fresh air more.