“My heart’s been in rubbish for the last 20 years,” Jane Walker tells The Huffington Post UK matter of factly. “I tend to feel like this will always be my modus operandi. It’s amazing what you can make from waste.”
She’s certainly not wrong. The 52-year-old Brit’s unusual career has been littered with other people’s trash. For over two decades in the Philippines, she worked to combat extreme poverty of those living, quite literally, a top of Manila’s toxic rubbish dumps.
The Philippine project had sustainability at its core since its inception. Rubbish and waste in the notorious Smokey Mountain dump would be sifted and sorted for materials that might take on a new lease of life. Plastics, bottle tops, and tin cans would be collected, cleaned and then made into products that have some use - and value.
In the beginning handbags, bracelets, and keychains were all fashioned from the rubbish and sold on by local stalls and residents. By 2009, some products were fetching hundreds of pounds in top-end London boutiques. And in the process those previously living in poverty learnt a skill.
Now some two decades later Walker has set her sights on a new challenge closer to home.
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“I looked around for groups needing help,” Walker said of her return to Britain last year. “I found that men and women in prison were classed as some of the most disadvantaged in the country because they had poor education and were not able to access skills training and when they came through the gates and left prison finding recruitment was very rare.”
According to the government, nearly half of all prisoners reoffend within 12 months of their release. For those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 60%, and some 68% of under 18 year olds are reconvicted within a year.
In 2010, the National Audit Office found inmates were not given “appropriate assistance” to help them turn around their lives. About half spent almost all day in their cells, rather than being engaged in training or rehabilitation.
And poor prospects for prisoners leaving jail has a costly consequence. The government has said the ‘revolving door’ of crime and prison costs the public as much as £15bn a year.
Walker’s latest project sees her taking the concept of recycling material into sellable goods to help give prisoners a chance at learning a skill - with the ultimate aim of reducing reoffending rates.
The Purple Community Fund launched last year and aims to provide ex-offenders with a chance to start again after prison. The scheme hopes to take in employability skills training and other vital support.
But the story of how Walker got to this point is inspiring to say the least. “About 20 years ago I was on a sabbatical from a job in the Philippines and I read a local newspaper about families whose homes were being bulldozed,” she said.
“I jumped in a taxi and I was so moved at what I saw because there were children as young as three years of age and families were really without hope and without futures and it just felt like an appalling situation to be in.”
This struck a nerve with Walker, who found herself homeless at the age of 15. “The one thing that really saved me was my determination to survive and my education because I was able to get work,” she said. “By the time I was 15 I was financially independent and I wanted to give other people other children their parents those opportunities.”
Walker spent the next 20 years building a multipurpose building on a dumpsite, helping to end child labour and beginning a big social enterprise for parents which continues to run today. She received an MBE in 2009.
The new scheme in the UK focusses on providing ex-offenders with a chance to start again after prison. The scheme hopes to take in employability skills training and other vital support. But it’s too early to tell if the charity has been successful in reducing reoffending.
Prisoners in four jails across the UK have the opportunity to join one of the charity’s workshops where they are taught the skills required to turn rubbish into products. The production line style has echoes of a small cottage industry in each prison.
Each week prisoners attend the sessions and produce goods - and have the option of earning a qualification too. And there are already plenty of corporate partners keen to get involved with the scheme.
“We have a great partnership with a London Underground advertising company which was making posters from a material we can use to make bags for life,” Walker said. “A big curtain company had lots of materials which we have taken in and made into different things. We take toothpaste tubes, banners.
“The aim is to reduce landfill. But this also helps companies to reduce waste too.”
And big employers like Greggs, Timpsons, Virgin and the Co-op already have schemes for employing ex-offenders.
Yet inside prison walls, the scheme is also having a positive effect on prisoners who say they are no longer bored with their routine.
“The prisoners are delighted with the programme because it gives them activities to do and it’s about upskilling,” Walker said. “Much of the work in the prison tends to be component fixing and working for another organisation. When they work for a charity they have a personal link to the work.”
“We provide qualification for them, it can be in education or in what we’re manufacturing,” she added. “It’s important for them and for some of them it’s their only qualification that they’ve had.
“We hope this will have significant differences in the reoffending rate and we believe with the correct level of support when they leave prison it gives them the support to succeed.”
Products made by prisoners are sold by independent retailers and through the organisation’s online shop. One recent bestselling line was Christmas decorations.
Yet the problem of stubbornly high recidivism rates can’t be tackled with one scheme alone - and it can’t be solved without prisoners themselves wanting to confront their circumstances.
“Many organisations believe that [reoffending] would be much worse if they didn’t put the effort in,” Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust told HuffPost UK. “Programmes go through quite a testing evaluation process they will show that if they are given the opportunity to deliver programmes that’s combined with other support that people need it can have an impact on reoffending.”
“Good rehabilitation starts with asking the offender what they think they can do, what their better life looks like, what their skills are and what would motivate them to do something that’s less damaging than crime,” he added.
And there are other problems in a prison system the government itself admits isn’t working as well as it could be.
Last month, hundreds of prison officers held a 24-hour strike over working conditions.
And in publishing a white paper into reforms of the service, Justice Secretary Liz Truss has said the government needs to find hundreds more prison officers.
“I was aware that staffing levels were dangerously low but what I didn’t know is just the effect that has on the prison officers and the inmates as well,” Walker said. “Even with the workshops we are running in the prisons, they sometimes get closed if there aren’t enough prison officers to supervise.
“The staffing levels really are dangerously low so I’m pleased that’s changing, I’m really delighted that that has now been seen as a mistake.
“The prison officers we work with are extremely caring and they understand that punishment is an important part but rehabilitation has to go hand-in-hand too.”