The importance of our five-year relationship with HMP Elmley

Developing a training programme and academy in prison to help ex-offenders find jobs in construction.

Figures show that only 17% of ex-offenders manage to get a job within a year of release. And, with it costing between £35,000-£39,000 a year to keep someone incarcerated, there needs to be a better solution to reduce reoffending.

For us at Willmott Dixon, it makes sense to support prisoner’s rehabilitation and integration back into society. Our industry needs 216,800 new workers by 2025, and we have the tools to enable people to find employment.

Since 2016, we’ve worked with HMP Elmley, a category C and D men’s prison. Our first visit was to a job fair, where we met several men who really surprised us. It was clear that most of them had made a genuine mistake, regretted it, and wanted to get back on the straight and narrow.

Whilst we couldn’t directly employ these men, we knew we could help make them employable.

We started with our ‘Ready for the Gate’ programme. The programme enables inmates to undertake CITB accredited health and safety training and obtain their CSCS cards, meaning they are job ready upon leaving.

However, one of the biggest barriers we faced in getting the men to sign up, was trust. These men had been offered support before, only to find themselves in the same situation. We needed to change their self-fulfilling prophecy and prove that our course would add genuine value to their lives, whilst managing their expectations, and ours too.

When one of the men who took part became employed, we saw a change in attitudes. In 2016, according to, the overall reoffending rate was 29.5%. The reoffending rate for prisoners taking part in our programme in the same year was 15%. In 2017, 39 people took part in the programme; none of them reoffended.

Following the success of Ready for the Gate, we began thinking about what more we could do. We consulted the prisoners, asking what they would find valuable; making them feel heard was an important part of the process. The result was our first in prison Drylining Academy. Opened in 2019, the Academy trains inmates on site with drylining skills and their CSCS cards.

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Unfortunately, Covid-19 halted our activities. But we’ve recently started training again, albeit socially distanced.

Over the five years of working with HMP Elmley, I’ve learnt a lot. What’s really helped me get through to these men, is honesty. I can’t promise them a job, but I can help them take that first step to bettering themselves. Through doing that, you have to create an organic learning environment, where everyone can learn at their own pace and know that it’s okay to get things wrong. We’re not here to make anyone to feel inadequate. These men are already living in an unbelievably difficult environment, rife with violence and intimidation. Instilling confidence is one of the first steps to their success.

I’ve also noticed a real change in employer’s attitudes towards hiring ex-offenders, especially when they have been proactive, using their time inside to acquire skills. Our supply chain partners have been incredibly supportive. For example, one of our programme’s participants has done really well, recently being promoted to a new role with Falcon Green.

Going forward, we want to expand our Building Lives programmes in other prisons across the UK. I’m so proud of the legacy we have left, the more we can show and teach others, the more we can encourage them to take that next step.