Heriot-Watt University research has high hopes to lower reconviction rates




A first-of-its-kind pilot project designed to help prisoners set up a microbusiness on release from prison is looking to expand throughout Scotland to help address the reconviction rate.

The pilot, delivered by Dr Jahangir Wasim from Heriot-Watt University and observed by independent researcher and former professor of entrepreneurship Dr Rob Smith, took place at HMP Grampian, in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. It provided women in custody with a series of tailored entrepreneurial-focused sessions designed to equip them with a range of new skills which can help them take steps towards establishing their own business upon release.

The three-day course covered essential business skills, such as marketing, taxation, how to sell services and products and information on where to find wider business support locally.

People in custody face numerous barriers to employment when they finish their sentence.

Jahangir Wasim, Heriot-Watt University

In Scotland, the criminal reconviction rate rose in 2018-19 for the first time for a decade to 28.3%, up from 26.4% in 2017-18, going against the downward trend over the previous ten years [1]. The Scottish Prison service estimates it costs approx £40k per prison place a year [2].

Those released from custody are more likely to reoffend if they are unemployed compared to those employed in ‘higher occupational roles’ [3]. In the Scottish Government's National Strategy for Economic Transformation Plan, there is clear ambition to celebrate and build entrepreneurial creativity in every economic sector to address economic disparities, boost job opportunities and promote wage growth.

With attendees chosen based on their upcoming release date, the business ideas proposed included a food and drink company, house painting and pet care. Funding is now being sought to extend the programme to help support some of the 7,400 people in Scottish prisons [4].

Practical and interactive methods proved to be most successful resulting in full attendance for each session. Teaching entrepreneurial skills impacted the way the women viewed themselves and they walked away feeling empowered and passionate about their ideas.

A research project has been created based on the pilot to explore key learning and refinements ahead of the launch of a wider programme across Scotland.

Jahangir Wasim, Head of Business and Management at Heriot-Watt University and project lead Grampian Prison researcher, said: “People in custody face numerous barriers to employment when they finish their sentence. The stigma of a criminal conviction means many opportunities, regardless of their ability, experience and even qualifications, are closed. We know that this can cause challenges to an individual’s sense of personal value, belonging and the role they play within their community - all of which can contribute to the likelihood that they may offend again.

“Deciding what path to take on release can be hugely frightening. This pilot set out to equip participants with a broad range of practical and entrepreneurial skills, providing them with hope and a renewed passion for how their life could look when they are released.

“Prisons are seen as safe places for many of those in custody as there is round the clock support and shelter from societal and familial pressures. We found there were no dedicated support services in Scotland designed to help people previously in custody to launch their own business.

“The attendees became passionate about their businesses and you could really see them planning their futures out. Projects like this emphasise there is a clear appetite for this type of practical and tailored training.”

Graeme Young, Outreach Coordinator HMP & YOI Grampian, said: “I really noticed a difference in the women’s confidence as the course progressed.

“Sometimes the talent of people can go to waste, because they don’t know how to turn it into a positive.

“However, with the information and support provided throughout this course, they were shown how to go take their ideas forward, and use their new skills to improve their opportunities in the future.”

Dr Gillian Murray, Deputy Principal (Enterprise & Business) at Heriot-Watt University, commented: “This groundbreaking pilot demonstrates Heriot-Watt University’s ongoing commitment to working closely with organisations to deliver meaningful and long lasting societal change. I am a great believer in the power of entrepreneurship and the long lasting impact it can have on individuals, businesses, communities and economies.

“Research like this is a great example of how those in custody can be equipped with the right tools to build lives outside of prison, contributing positively to Scotland's economy. This supports the Scottish Government's ambition to reduce reconviction rates through innovative and forward thinking initiatives.

“Heriot-Watt is a great example of how universities can equip future talent with this at the forefront of their minds and support the Scottish Government's thinking of using this as a tool to address economic inequalities.”

[1] Report from Law Society of Scotland: Reconviction rates rise in latest figures

[2] Report from the Auditor General for Scotland: The 2018/2019 audit of the Scottish Prison Service

[3] Plan from Cabinet Secretary for Justice for Scotland: The Vision for Justice in Scotland

[4] Prison Population at 20.5.2022 from World Prison Brief


Emily Gilbride