Barbed, a graphic design studio based at HMP Coldingley in Bisley, Surrey, was set up by charity the Howard League for Penal Reform in October 2005 to train and employ inmates as graphic designers, but faces closure after running up against an intransigent Prison Service.

Barbed graphic design studio

Barbed graphic design studio. Credit: Barbed/Howard League

A groundbreaking project in which prison inmates run a design company from behind bars in an effort to reduce reoffending rates is under threat of closure.

Barbed, a graphic design studio based at HMP Coldingley in Bisley, Surrey, was set up by charity the Howard League for Penal Reform in October 2005 to train and employ inmates as graphic designers.

Launched with £100,000 funding, Barbed is the first attempt to run a commercially viable social enterprise within a prison and supports 60 per cent of its costs through client work.

Clients include many organisations within the field, such as the Butler Trust, Prison Education Trust and the Howard League, but also NHS trusts, legal firm Clifford Chance and even Kentucky Fried Chicken.

But according to a report seen exclusively by The Big Issue, the project, housed within the Category C secure prison, may close because of lack of support.

Andrew Neilson, assistant director of policy at the Howard League, who oversees Barbed, told The Big Issue: “The project was never set up to run forever, but neither the Prison Service nor the government have showed any interest in the idea as a pilot of how real, skilled labour in prisons could work.”

Report author Penny Green, professor of criminology at King’s College London, was tasked by the Howard League to independently assess Barbed’s progress. Her findings, due for publication next month, detail a catalogue of obstacles that have undermined the credibility of the project.

Many of the setbacks are directly linked to prison overcrowding: inmates trained for six months are moved without warning to other prisons to make way for new arrivals, or moved after being re-categorised up to category B or down to category D open prisons. Studio staff are prevented from working by security lock-downs, and working hours have also been cut to around five hours a day.

Barbed staff are also paid a real, above-minimum wage from which tax and National Insurance contributions are deducted. To further emulate the costs of life on the outside, a third of prisoners’ wages is deducted and given to charity.

Barbed’s organisers aimed to introduce skilled work to prisoners who perhaps had no experience of it, complete with a working day, deadlines and the payment of tax to the state as part of the social contract.

But late last year, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) refused to accept the tax and returned a cheque for £18,000 to the Howard League. A letter from HMRC stated that while prisoners based at open prisons working on day release were liable for tax, those working within more secure prisons were not.

The Ministry Of Justice argued that as prisoners are not under contract for the work they do, they are not employees, and as such cannot be taxed.

This contradiction was described by the Howard League’s Euginia Lolomari as “an anomaly that they recognise, but on which they are unwilling to shift”.

She believes government ministers quail at inmates earning a ‘real’ wage for productive work, as opposed to the token Prison Service wage of between £5 and £30 a week earned by inmates for prison jobs such as laundry and packing – and in particular the legal employment rights it would imply.

She said: “The whole point of the project is to demonstrate that businesses based in prison can work, and that prisoners given a full working day and paid a realistic wage are motivated to produce a good level of skilled work.”

Describing the HMRC’s position as ‘Kafkaesque’, Professor Green’s report states that the future of Barbed and projects like it requires the “urgent resolution” of legal issues surrounding prisoner employment. Reforming prison work would require “a wholesale commitment on the part of the Prison Service, which to date is absent”.

She continues: “Denied a meaningful wage and legal employment rights, prison work, from the prisoner’s perspective, is thus linked more with exploitative punishment than reward, and does little to challenge offending behaviour.”

At HMP Coldingley, the Barbed studio looks much like any other small business office: there are half a dozen Apple Macs, pin-boards cluttered with newspaper clippings, diagrams, and finished work adorns the walls.

Barbed has trained 11 inmates, but this has been reduced to three designers and professional studio manager David Allen after staff were moved to other prisons.

For designer Leon, who is in the last stretch of a five-year sentence, it has been a steep learning curve. The 33-year-old said: “It was tricky getting my head around it, but I really enjoy it. It gives me something to look forward to. When I get out in six months I’m planning to set up a social enterprise design business of my own. It’s given me the skills to do that.”

He criticised much of the prison’s other work training. “You just sit around all day. It’s not actually teaching you skills to get a job with outside,” he said.

Another designer, 48-year-old B, has spent the last five years of his life sentence at Coldingley and is up for parole in April. He said: “Working here has been great for me. It’s been a great distraction to everything out there” – he gestures outside the studio’s partition walls – “and a break from the monotony of it all.

“I’ve learnt skills I can use outside. There were a few guys in here that had never worked a job in their life, so it must have been a great help for them and great experience to keep them out of prison in the future.”

One former inmate who worked on the Barbed project has even gone on to work for the Howard League since his release.

But organisations working in the penal system say that the loss of inventive projects like Barbed is almost certain under new recommendations to build super-prisons.

Critics have warned that Titan prisons mean less staff per prisoner, longer lock-up hours and tighter security, all of which work against organisations trying to run rehabilitation programmes.

Barbed studio manager David Allen described running the studio as both rewarding and frustrating. He said: “People get upset that prisoners are working, but would they rather they were doing nothing and getting angrier and more resentful with society? The effect on the guys has been massively positive. They are enthusiastic and keen to work. In prison, at some point, the punishment has to end and the rehabilitation to begin.”


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue]


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