You probably don’t think too much about the person who copies your keys at the local shop, repairs your shoes or takes your new passport photo. But if that shop is owned by the Timpson Group, chances are their management has.
Timpson is one of a few employers in the UK actively recruiting and training people within prisons to work in their shops, which include Max Spielmann, Timpson Locksmiths and Snappy Snaps. Under an effort by CEO James Timpson, the company currently employs about 600 ex-offenders.
This training and employment scheme is the subject of A Second Chance, a new full-length documentary, directed by filmmaker Rex Bloomstein and co-produced with Justin Temple. Bloomstein, who has made films on the criminal justice system since the 1970s, met Timpson through work with the Prison Reform Trust where they are trustee and chairman, respectively.
In advance of a screening at the Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford, Bloomstein joined me for a conversation about the film’s origination, the state of rehabilitation efforts underway in prisons across the country and the criminal justice system more broadly.
Elle Pfeffer [EP]: Could you tell me a little about the film and why you decided to make it now?
Rex Bloomstein [RB]: It’s a film about transformation. It’s a film about hope. It’s quite a contrast to the current crop of television documentaries on prisons both on Channel 4 and ITV. They tend towards television of confrontation. It’s an immensely negative picture they’re portraying because there’s immensely negative factors around. But lost, to some extent, is the more rounded picture of men and women who are incarcerated. A Second Chance offers something different. For start, it’s for cinema screening and it follows the lives of six people. It follows two who are in academies created by James Timpson of the Timpson Foundation to train to work in his shops and stores and there are four other major interviews with ex-offender employees working for Timpson. This film is unusual in this context of exposing the often harrowing and sad realities of prison life in this country with the highest prison population in Western Europe and the third highest in the whole of Europe.
EP: Do you think all offenders are due a second chance, following the title of your film?
RB: We should be thinking more of giving people a second chance because people change, people adapt. Part of our humanity is to look beyond what has gone wrong and try to rectify it with opportunity of some sort. In a sense, if you lose all hope inside prison, then suicide beckons and the monotony and tragedy of your situation can become unbearable. It’s only a very tiny minority of prisoners who have whole life tariffs — will never get out. The vast, overwhelming majority of people will come back onto the streets one day.
EP: How did the Timpson company come to set up this unique scheme?
RB: It’s not entirely unique. There are companies slowly beginning to realize the potential of offering jobs to prisoners. James was invited along with other employers to a local prison in Manchester near where he lives. He was fascinated and appalled at the same time by the conditions inside the prison, but he was impressed by the prisoner who was showing them around and offered him a job as he left. He took him on and then realized there was remarkable potential inside the prisons for people to work in his shops. Now it’s 10 percent of his workforce. In a commercial sense — and [James] claims to be a commercial-minded man, this isn’t just a philanthropic exercise — it’s a hard-nosed reality in that there’s some very good people inside who have decided – and this is very key – they want a chance. They want a second chance. They want to change. They want to put behind them their criminal past whatever it may be and give this a go. And they do. They’ve been remarkably successful. I ask him in the film – have people stolen from you? Have they betrayed you? And of the over 1,000 prisoner’s in these last ten years, as far as he’s aware, four or five may have gone back to prison. Often, the three major factors of some success of some kind when you leave prison are a relationship, a home and a job. Often these are completely lacking. And the offer of this job, if you put your mind to it and you train, it’s a fantastic opportunity. You’re certainly not going to become a millionaire, but it’s a terrific starting point to begin again.
EP: There is a lot of focus now on violent vs. non-violent offending. Did you see any evidence of differential treatment based on the crimes that had been committed in the employment and training schemes that you cover?
RB: I don’t think that concerns them. In the film, there’s a man convicted of murder, he’s working for Timpson’s. They’ve got lifers, as we call them, and they’ve got petty thieves. I think once they judge their potential prisoner employee’s on personality, on coming to terms with what they’ve done, on a genuine wanting to change and be given that chance – these are the factors. Where their line stops is sex offenders — they won’t employ sex offenders, people who’ve committed arson or former terrorists. I don’t agree with them about sex offenders, but I can understand. The sex offender population is very varied in itself, it’s not just pedophiles, it’s a whole range of offenses.
EP: So Timpson’s program is a solution to the substantial reoffending problem that is emerging from the private sector. Do you think this kind of effort must originate there or do you think the government could encourage other employers to do the same or employ ex-offenders themselves?
RB: The Ministry of Justice has tried to come to grips with this and created a unit – the New Futures Network. They’re tasked to get the word out to employers. I think there’s going to become a bigger effort to get employers to think less negatively about people with a criminal past and move to stop you having to say you’ve been in prison before. To give people that clean slate to try and overcome the prejudice, fears and anxiety. In that sense, there’s a role for the state. It may be that more state-owned companies should do more and I think it’s part of the big challenge to think more constructively about crime and punishment than we’ve done before. It’s a desperate failure in many ways – prisons. In the film, there’s a statistic which is already out of date. At the end of it I say the cost of reoffending is 15 billion pounds. It’s wrong. It’s now 18 billion. So there’s a fantastic challenge to deal with crime and punishment more effectively.
EP: What do you make of Boris Johnson and the current government’s proposals to remove automatic license for some long sentences and generally increase the number of prison spots and police officers? Will these proposals have trickle down effects to the people you’ve been speaking with?
RB: I’m opposed to building more prisons. Certainly not opposed to modernizing them, but I’m opposed to building more prisons and I think longer sentences result in this vast prison population. I think we’ve got to really beef up alternatives to prison in a much more effective way. I suspect that half the prison population could spend a lot less time in prison and non-violent offenses particularly. Offenses involving violence are more challenging, but people do change and can change. I think we have to ask ourselves why are we one of the most punitive countries in Europe? Are we more criminals than other countries with our vast population? Why do other countries seem to deal with it better? Why are we so intolerant of trying to reform? There’s a tremendous fear of crime.
EP: You raised an interesting point when you said that you were opposed to building more prisons but not modernizing them. Among many reform activists, there is great opposition to putting any more funding into prisons at all. Where do you think the line is drawn? Is it about allocation?
RB: Well, I think that’s all very well to make a philosophical point about that, but if you’re living in stinking conditions which border on the inhumane it behooves you surely to try to rectify that. Would you like to live in those conditions that sometimes exist in our prisons? No, I think the answer is no. We’ve got to make a humane service and leave people in safe and secure conditions in our prisons. It’s one of the ways of judging what sort of society in which we live is how do we deal with deviants and incarcerating people.
EP: Moving away from the government to the public, how do you think public support for rehabilitation can be built? How do you respond to people who argue we can’t rehabilitate everyone, that public money should be spent helping those that play by the rules?
RB: I think prison reform has failed tragically in this country. When I did my series Strangeways in 1980, we were shocked by the number of people in prison which was 47,000 people. Shocked. Now, it’s 85, 86, 87,000. So what’s happened? Why’s it doubled? Have we got worse, more criminal? Why have we become more punitive? It’s a very tough call that the public don’t seem to mind this huge prison population, they don’t seem to mind £15 billion on reoffending and the costs of criminal justice system. All these people are locked away and justice is somehow seen to be done and there’s outrage when people are too lenient. We’ve accepted notions of punitiveness, fostered by, on the whole, a very righteous and negative media. So even though up to 11 million people have a criminal record of some sort, nevertheless, our attitudes remain so punitive. So there is a huge task in public education. I hope my film – you must make up your own mind – goes a little way towards that.
Responses have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
A Second Chance is screening at cinemas around the UK. More information and a trailer can be found at https://www.asecondchancefilm.com.