“One thing is continuous in prison, you’re trying to get your life back”, says LJ Flanders, an entrepreneur who put his future on hold aged 21. He “got into a fight he shouldn’t have,” which led to a three year sentence at Pentonville for grievous bodily harm.
Before his arrest Flanders was studying music and business management while working on a startup that would tackle illegal ticket touting.
Following the initial shock of imprisonment, he reviewed his options. His first move was to join a personal training course. Fellow prisoners, impressed by Flanders’ work-out skills, soon began asking him how they could get in shape. For Flanders, this sparked a business idea – a prison cell exercise manual.
After asking his family to do some background research and check there was nothing similar available (he didn’t have internet access inside) he spent the 15 months until his probation sketching diagrams of workouts and writing exercise instructions.
Fast-forward to 2017 and Flanders’s Cell Workout can be found on the shelves of Waterstones and WH Smith. Flanders self-published the book before securing a deal with Hodder & Stoughton. He has also set up a social enterprise under the same name to train inmates in health and fitness and has won funding to run courses at Wandsworth prison.
“Being in prison wasn’t the best thing ever. But, in a way, it was one of the best things that happened to me,” he says. “You have to rework perceptions.”
A report (pdf) into prison entrepreneurship, published last year by the Centre for Entrepreneurs, includes Flanders as an example of prisoners’ aptitude for enterprise. The report also pulls together a number of previous studies to show this. “Prisoners and entrepreneurs score similarly on the need for self achievement, aspiration for personal innovation, desire to plan for the future and desire for independence,” it says.
It argues that helping prisoners start a business is an effective form of rehabilitation and points to reduced reoffending rates among prisoners who take entrepreneurship programmes. After an entrepreneurship programme in Germany, for example, only 11% of prisoners went on to reoffend, compared to the German national average of 46%.
On the back of the report, the Centre for Entrepreneurs has won £120,000 of government funds to run an enterprise course at HMP Ranby in Nottinghamshire, one of six reform prisons named under the government’s prison reform programme. The course is due to start on 7 February and around 35 prisoners have been recruited so far.
There are other UK entrepreneurship courses for prisoners and ex-prisoners, such as those offered by Enterprise Exchange and Startup. So, what makes the centre’s programme unique? Maximilian Yoshioka, lead researcher at the centre and the report’s author, says: “It’s a question of context rather than content […] our programme is being funded via a specialised government grant and is taking place in one of the six early adopter reform prisons. The results of our programme will not only be of value in themselves, but will help determine whether similar programmes are considered in prisons across the country.”
The Centre for Entrepreneurs estimates that if entrepreneurship training is made available to all pre-release prisoners, the UK government could save up to £1.4bn annually on the cost of prisoner reoffending.
Prisons are under intense scrutiny at the moment with the population reaching 85,128 (pdf) on 1 July 2016 (between 1990 and 2015 the prison population increased by 90%) and a record rate of prison suicide. Plus, of adults sentenced to 12 months or fewer, close to 60% reoffend when released, a number that has moved little since 2005.
The Centre for Entrepreneurs’ course has been devised with the support of a steering group, which includes Jacob Hill, founder of Offploy and Lazy Camper. Hill is himself an ex-prisoner. He set up Lazy Camper, which sold camping gear for festivals in 2011. However, he later found himself in significant debt and in 2014 was arrested for dealing drugs at a music festival.
About to graduate from university, Hill began a 28-month sentence. Among his fellow inmates he recognised a cycle of low self-esteem, punishment and reoffending. “Everyone [in prison] is told how bad they are, or how they’ve failed. People I met inside have been told that all their life. Giving prisoners a little bit of belief goes such a long way.”
While in prison, Hill started planning an enterprise that would connect organisations that were open to employing ex-offenders with former prisoners looking for work. And, within two weeks of release, he secured backing from private investor Nigel Stabler. In May 2016 Offploy launched as a social enterprise.
With this in mind, Hill was keen to get involved with the development of the Centre for Entrepreneurs programme.
Another member of the programme’s steering group is Phil Ashford, founder and director of Enterprise Exchange, which helps people with additional barriers to become self-employed or start a company. Part of Ashford’s remit is delivering self-employment workshops in prisons.
From his research, Ashford has a clear vision of what prisoners do and don’t want from an entrepreneurship course. They do want practical support. “Not particularly how Richard Branson does his branding, but rather how, as a painter and decorator, can I get myself in front of customers at a very low cost.” They don’t want, says Ashford, to feel like they are back in the classroom.
But prisoners he’s spoken to also felt, no matter how good a course was, if there was no follow up or support afterwards then there was no point in taking part.
The Centre for Entrepreneurs seeks to overcome this problem. Its programme, which has been designed by the centre together with Enterprise Agency NBV and HMP Ranby, will consist of two parts – one in prison and one after release. This second part will provide students with advice, equipment and, possibly, funding to launch and grow their business.
One ex-prisoner and now entrepreneur remembers the lack of any support after prison and his fear that this would spiral into homelessness and poverty. In fact it led Richard McCann, who recently marked the 20 year anniversary of his release, to contemplate suicide. But, by lying about his conviction he secured a job and steady income, which kept him going.
Then, in 2005, he wrote a book about his life experience, which led to his current career as a motivational speaker. When McCann was six his mother was murdered by Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper.
A difficult childhood for McCann and his sister Sonia followed. Later in life he fell into drugs, which led to his six-month prison sentence. He relays this experience in his talks, some of which he gives in prisons.
McCann thinks offering prisoners the chance to start a business is a positive step. “I didn’t realise that I could be an entrepreneur. I used to think that was a different type of person to myself. So I think they need educating and showing the way.”
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