Female prisoners at one of Britain's largest private jails, are being paid to make items for fashion designers, some of whom have been able to keep their involvement in the project private.
While those behind the project are able to cite compelling evidence that suggests a positive impact on prisoners' hopes of rehabilitation, the questions of transparency surrounding it highlight one of the fundamental issues around the outsourcing industry.
The prison, which is run by outsourcing company Sodexo, is home to the project, named Stitch in Time. It is operated by Blue Sky Inside, which is a subsidiary company of Blue Sky, a multimillion-pound social enterprise established in 2005 to help offenders get back into employment.
It is public knowledge that they are working for brands as Brora, Anya Hindmarch, and Sue Bonham, while male prisoners at HMP High Down are making a board game for ET Games.
However, they have also made items for other designers who have not been named, and are under no legal obligation to make public who the designers are, what the items are or how much they cost. BuzzFeed News has, however, been assured that there were only a handful of them and that their primary clients are all listed publicly.
Anya Hindmarch is public about her use of Blue Sky inside: as a result her business attracted some negative headlines late last year over the fact the women sewing black and white dustbags for their handbags – which have now become a fashion item in their own right – are paid just £9.60 a week.
Blue Sky, for its part, says it does not set prison wages: they are the responsibility of The National Offenders Management Service (NOMS), and that those working on the project earn more than the average weekly wage for prisoners.
A spokesperson for Anya Hindmarch told BuzzFeed News: “We are incredibly proud to support this project. A small amount of our protective cotton packaging is produced by Blue Sky Inside. Sourcing this way costs us more money, however we see the project making a real difference to women trying to get their lives back on track.
“Women working on this scheme are more likely to secure employment on release having learned new skills and gained experience for their CVs. We feel this is 'women supporting women' and encourage other companies to participate in schemes which promote better outcomes for offenders."
The company doesn’t advertise that any of its products are being made by the prisoners. However, a spokesperson said: “We don’t advertise any of our suppliers. Anya Hindmarch talks very publicly about the philanthropic partnership with Blue Sky Inside and is even a Patron of the charity.”
Brora doesn’t advertise its suppliers either, but one of its staff is quoted on the Blue Sky website. The company has commissioned 8,000 jewellery bags from the project. One of the other firms with a contract, ET Games, promotes its partnership with Blue Sky Inside online.
It is understood that the prisoners are currently working on a handful of projects for other designers. When BuzzFeed News asked for details of them, we were not provided with them. Blue Sky is a limited company working in partnership with a private prison provider, and as such a Freedom of Information request cannot be made to find out more: the Ministry of Justice does not hold the relevant information.
A spokesperson for Blue Sky said: “Operating a workshop within a prison regime, means our portfolio is purposely small. This is because we are providing both work and education for prisoners whilst delivering products for our partners. We also do one-off requests from designers and other initiatives like charity fashion shows to widen the learning opportunities for women.”
Blue Sky Inside employs 144 prisoners – of those it was able to support once their sentences ended, 32% moved into paid employment, according to the company’s annual accounts. Kate Markey, the managing director of Blue Sky, gave BuzzFeed News further information about the initiative. In an emailed statement, she told us: “The women who have worked at Blue Sky Inside are three times as likely to find work or volunteer opportunities when they leave prison compared to the national average.”
She said that it “created a real work environment”, because “women have to apply, are interviewed and have a probationary period,” and pointed out the scheme “Provides QCF Levels 1 & 2 in Fashion Techniques”, as well as “Softer skills training – NCFE problem solving and team building.” She told us that 71 qualifications had been completed since April 2015, and that “On release the women can also access grants to support their resettlement and support from a mentor.”
Markey went on: “This is an important philanthropic project for our commercial partners. They are critical to us helping women make positive changes in their lives. Without these contracts that provide work and skills development, we would not be able to help them to prepare for release.”
She added: "To date Blue Sky has employed 1,150 ex-offenders with commercial partners and over 40% of them to get jobs afterwards. The Ministry of Justice found that Blue Sky’s approach can reduce re-offending by up to 23%. This is one of the highest scores recorded."
Markey also provided us with a series of testimonies from anonymous prisoners, which we have not been able to independently verify. One prisoner is quoted saying the workshop was, “the best thing that has happened since I have been in prison, it has saved me”.
Another is quoted as saying they had “Learnt new techniques and achieved things I didn’t think I was capable of doing, I have built my self-confidence working in a lovely environment.”
They added: “I have gained two more qualifications at Level 1 and Level 2 and hopefully I can achieve a Level 3 qualification on release as well as start my own business which I will receive help from Blue Sky with. When I leave this prison I have got hope and new skills which will keep me out of trouble and I have said to myself that I will never come back to prison again.”
Blue Sky Inside has added this video to its website, which features more insight into the scheme.
Alan White is a news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alan White at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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