What is Prisinnovation?
13 July 2015 - Leslie Alfin


The development of humane and productive alternatives to existing prison policy and practice that eliminate root causes of offense and elevate expectations for opportunity, contribution and economic equality.

Ok — easier said than done. But isn’t anything that is worth doing?

I will share some things that I know.


The Reality

  • 6% of 10-19 year-olds belong to a UK gang
  • 50% of the teenage murders in London in 2007 were gang related
  • 7500 identified gangs in the UK at a cost of £40Billion per year
  • 100% of queried sample of youth offenders:
    • carried weapons as young as 10 yrs because they were afraid
    • do not believe they have the choice of a different life
    • said they would choose a life free of crime if they had the opportunity


The Maths: In the UK, there are 86,000 people in prison. The average GDP per capita is £25,600. The average disposable income per capita is £8,500 adding up to a collective £2.95 billion of potential productivity wasted annually sitting behind bars.

Under the new Transforming Rehabilitation scheme, the UK government has budgeted a discretionary £0.5B-£2B per yr in an attempt to remedy the situation. The UK government has also budgeted £3.9B per yr to manage household waste.

The math is simple and disturbing. The UK spends more than twice as much on rubbish than it does on reclaiming valuable and important human resources. And in each case, they are only managing the symptoms, not the cause.

This is a pattern that is repeated around the globe.


The Dynamics: At the heart of a global struggle with prison reform and reducing recidivism is the very difficult socio-economic imbalance that occurs in disadvantaged communities and feeds the penal system. Poverty, social exclusion, and opportunity deserts generate a vicious cycle of survival including crime, violence and prison that devastates families, communities and local economies for generations giving rise to a dysfunctional system that drives the continuation of the cycle.

At the center of these destructive systems you will find gang enterprise that, whether loosely or tightly organized, have filled the existing family, economic and opportunity gaps for aspiring young adults who, groomed for service as early as 8 years of age, have come to believe that the careers offered here are their only hope for any status in life, financial or otherwise, no matter the consequence. Indeed, they view the consequence as accepted terms of their employment.

Climbing_001While these gang enterprises, on a local level, may be perceived as a kind of solution to the social and economic inequalities experienced in the broader socio-economic community they, in reality, only serve to sustain and expand destructive cycles and the breakdown of healthy community eco-systems.

The dysfunction does not end at the local community borders. Where the local and the global systems intersect, there exists an opportunity threshold directly influenced by the perceptions of each group’s value to the other. Under current circumstances the opportunity threshold is low or non-existent as a result of the perceptions formed by the interaction experienced in the threshold that includes mistrust, prison, probation, social services and low paid labour setting negative or minimal mutual expectations that are only re-enforced by the actions or non-actions that take place on both sides of the threshold.


The Myth: The assumption that certain “disadvantaged” individuals or communities are less capable of meaningful and valuable contribution are short sighted at best, stereotypical at worst and is significantly influenced by the interactions mentioned above.

As a result, the “solutions” instituted by government, third sector and institutional organisations tend toward low paid labour that undervalues the level of potential contribution that may be offered by these individuals or at the other extreme, a fairly new trend toward entrepreneurship programming.

There is a wealth of untapped enterprise-savvy talent in these economically challenged communities. Although they are under an ever present cloud of prison sentences and violence, these gang enterprises are structured with a top down hierarchy that is identical to those in a typical mainstream enterprise with a career path to match and a full complement of benefits that include the equivalent of incentive based salaries, bonuses, use of company car & driver, a supportive community, family benefits and life insurance.

When presented with the current choices for leaving a life of crime, it is no wonder that when these high achievers are offered low paying jobs for uninteresting work they choose a path that promises an exciting career in an enterprise community that provides valuable benefits to those who show loyalty even though it is illegal and dangerous.

Additionally, as these are “company men” who thrive within a highly structured top-down organisation they are not necessarily entrepreneurial, or may be entrepreneurial in the same small percentages that candidates from any background might demonstrate these skills, rendering any of the current so-called solutions ineffective and unsustainable on a larger scale.

Walking Away_001

The Mythbusting: In most cases survival on the street often means having to engage in multiple financial endeavors and adapting to circumstances or environments that can change rapidly affording these individuals an opportunity to become expert in the application of resilience as a valuable tool and critical life skill. Additionally creativity and resilience that is born of a lack of resources rather than an abundance, has proven to be a catalyst for grass roots innovation extracting maximum value by fully leveraging what resources are available resulting from problem solving on some very sophisticated levels– in many ways perhaps more adaptive and therefore sustainable than mainstream counterparts.

The characteristics, behaviors, attitudes and skill sets demonstrated by those who have no other option than to survive through wits and ingenuity may have much to share, teach and contribute when it comes to the skill sets necessary to survive and sustain in an enterprise world that is nothing if not rapidly ever changing.


Keeping Promises_001The Poetry: Because the concept of Prisinnovation  is community-centric and seeks to restore local economies as the key to systemic prison reform and recidivism reduction, why not activate the valuable resources that can be contributed by these skilled “company men” in social enterprise hubs at the heart of gang ravaged communities?

And in this way create an alternative healthy economic system designed, operated and managed by those so-called society’s misfits who previously contributed to its dysfunction but now offer a positive contribution in the form of role model, mentor, and community leader at the vanguard of an equal value exchange with the greater global community.


It’s just a thought.

Prisinnovation: Perpetrators as Pioneers of Economic Regeneration | Leslie Alfin | TEDxAylesbury

Top image credit by CC2.0