You might be forgiven for thinking that the IT channel and the prison service do not share a great deal in common, except perhaps for a few individuals who are paying the price for operating on the wrong side of the law.
But for a number of years a handful of IT resellers and vendors across the UK have been lending their support to prisoners in the form of training and education schemes. The projects are designed to give those behind bars a better chance of employment after they are released, with a view to reducing the rate of reoffending in the UK.
Cisco's Prison ICT Academy (PICTA) has seen more than 2,200 inmates accredited with badges in networking, hardware and software and Microsoft Office since it was set up in 2005, and reseller Network 2 Supplies also works with prisons to recycle PCs.
Earlier this year, PC refurbishment project Computers4All was established by serial channel entrepreneur Mark Abrahams in a bid to help prisoners learn a trade as well as provide charities with cut-price PCs. The scheme relies on donations of unwanted PCs from end users and resellers, which are securely and remotely wiped before being refurbished within prisons and sold at reduced prices. Charities can source refurbished PCs from Computers4All - which is a registered Microsoft Refurbisher, meaning Windows 7 licences are included - for about £75 each compared with an average retail price of £350.
Resellers get to tick a corporate responsibility box when donating the equipment, the prisons make a small profit from resales, prisoners learn a trade and charities get to save cash on PC purchases - it seems everyone is a winner.
CRN was granted access to HMP The Mount in Hertfordshire - where the scheme is kicking off - to see the project in action and find out more.
Getting stuck in
The Mount is an all-male training prison, based in the small Hertfordshire village of Bovingdon, and holds about 800 inmates, although a new wing is being built which will see the number rise to 1,200. It is classed as a Category-C facility - one step up from lowest-security-level Category-D open prisons, but still home to men serving medium to long-term sentences including those on life tariffs for murder.
During their time at The Mount, the majority of inmates take part in one of 10 available training schemes such as double glazing, plastering, bricklaying and bike repair, which the prison and probation service hope they will continue professionally on the outside. Prisoners are paid for their labour with credits they can spend around the prison.
In a small workshop within the training wing of the institute, Computers4All holds its hands-on classes for about 10 prisoners - or students, as it prefers to call them.
The workspace - which could not be photographed for security reasons - is basic but Computers4All is planning to make its students feel more at home by bringing in posters and providing prisoners with branded T-shirts so they feel more like a team.
The workshop sees about 100 PCs roll off its production line per month. It runs from Mondays to Thursday between 8:30am and 4:30pm with a long lunch break to allow time to move the prisoners from the workshops to the canteen and back. Friday is a half day to accommodate other meetings and activities the inmates must attend.
One prisoner, whose name must not be disclosed due to prison rules, said the PC refurbishment course is similar to having a full-time job.
"It is good for some of the younger guys who may not have had the discipline of going to work every day," he said, adding that some of the soft skills such as teamwork and time management are just as useful to some as the technical IT skills.
According to Cisco - which works extensively with prisons as part of its corporate responsibility programme - by 2020, 90 per cent of all jobs in the UK will require some basic IT skills, something the prisoner said the Computers4All scheme has given him.
"I get a lot of satisfaction from doing this and it could be a potential trade I look into in the future," he said. "I do enjoy it. I may be a criminal, but I have worked all my life. Some don't want to take part [in prison industries] but for the people who do it, it is beneficial and it is good that the prison offers it."
Every prisoner on the hands-on course has had to pass a desk-based Cisco PICTA course before being enrolled, meaning they all have a similar level of knowledge and interest in computers.
"There's a lot of kudos for being on an IT course," instructor Roger Ashburner told CRN. "They like it in here and some tell me they do because it means they can forget they are in prison."
Another prisoner, who also cannot be named, said he hopes some of the technical skills he has learned in prison will be the basis of his dream career in music.
"It's either work or be locked up in your cell all day and I would rather be productive," he said. "The [Cisco PICTA] course before was desk-based, but I like this more because it is hands on.
"But to be honest, [PC refurbishment] is just my backup because music is my real passion," he said, adding that he was studying a higher-education course in music before he was sent to prison.
"I want to be on a radio station or working with music - I'm really into reggae and R&B. But all that still needs technology and I have not ruled out setting up my own computer repair shop either."
There is no reason prisoners cannot do their jobs as well as anyone else, said Doug Harvey, who is in charge of all prison industries at The Mount.
"[Prisoners] are highly trained and they are as good as - if not better - than on the outside," he said, adding that corporations working with the inmates are often surprised at the top-quality work they produce.
"Just because they are prisoners doesn't mean they aren't good at what they do," he said. "They're as good as gold."
The skills gap in the IT industry means companies are crying out for motivated and skilled technical staff, according to recruiter Craig Austin, managing director of Genesis Associates, who said he believes ex-offenders could be welcomed into the channel.
"[Computers4All] is making the effort to train in prison and I think that is exemplary and it should be commended for that," he added.
"The market is in such high demand and I think the majority of companies we deal with - those within the CRN Top 100 VARs - would certainly look at an ex-offender so long as they have the drive and the know-how, there is no reason why they wouldn't.
"We will support any scheme that assists ex-offenders in any way, shape or form, without a shadow of a doubt. We have a vision of ensuring respect for individuals who deserve a second chance. It is
a great cause."
Computers4All's team of students manages to fix up about 100 PCs a month at the moment, but with the prison expanding and more inmates than ever keen to get on to IT courses, the number could reach as many as 500, according to the scheme's founder Abrahams (pictured, right).
He said he hopes to roll out the project across the UK once a bigger pool of PC suppliers has been secured.
"We are looking for more resellers to work with to donate used computers," he said.
"When a reseller replaces a client's machines, they could donate the used machines to us and this helps to ensure that equipment is disposed of under WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) regulations and enables the end user to boost their corporate social responsibility credentials."
Infrastructure provider says international sales now make up 51 per cent of its revenue
Suzanne Chappell of TMS plans sailing venture after selling Oxfordshire-based TMS to acquisitive Chess
Withdrawal of credit insurance by some providers a 'reflection' of current challenge facing IT sector, according to MD Steve Soper
SMART's UK managing director joins Lenovo to boost SMB business