Unfortunately, those chances can be thin on the ground. Prison labour is unskilled, extremely poorly paid and offers few chances to make a genuine change. The sort of situation, in other words, that we would be campaigning against if it was happening on the factory floor on the other side of the prison gates.
But, as an inspiring piece in The Guardian points out, there are outliers in prison labour that are starting to make a difference. Fashion is going to jail, and it's bringing a chance to start again with it.
Social enterprises like Fine Cell Work in the UK are working with prisoners to learn embroidery skills. The pieces that they make have been exhibited in the V&A, and sold on to conscious designers like Pier favourite Stella McCartney. Working in 29 jails across the country, Fine Cell Work are offering a real opportunity–even if the pay isn't quite what you'd expect from skilled labour.
In Mexico, meanwhile, a captive labour force of nearly a quarter-million is commonly used for repetitive, low-cost tasks. Yet some entrepreneurs are seeing that force and realising that we, and they, can do better. Jorge Cueto-Felgueroso's company Prison Arts sells high-end bags decorated with tattoo-inspired designs in shops across Mexico and online. He was inspired by his own experiences in jail, when he was incarcerated while awaiting trial for fraud–charges for which he was found innocent. The 200 workers for Prison Arts are extremely well-paid by jail-cell standards, and profits from the venture are plowed straight back into the programme. Jorge says:
“The bags we make are just a sub-product of the whole process. What’s important is the help we offer with rehabilitation and the reintegration into society afterwards.”
And there's the point to the whole enterprise. Prisoners who are given a chance to learn a new trade or skill are far less likely to slip back into old ways when they leave. Support and encouragement in a positive direction is vital in a successful rehabilitation programme. Ventures like Prison Arts and Fine Cell Work are making a difference, ensuring that a spell in the slammer doesn't lead to a wasted life.