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Prisoners training in digital print

Skills learned at new print center are intended to help inmates avoid trouble after they're released.

A prison is training inmates to use digital printing technology in an attempt to give them a better chance to stay on the straight and narrow when they finish their sentence.

High tech came to the Standford Hill Prison, on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, earlier this year with the opening of the first fully digital print center with color capabilities in the HM Prison Service.

Standford Hill is a category D prison, and it offers a wide range of vocational training for some 460 inmates as part of an initiative to arm offenders with useful skills that will enable them to seek employment once they're released--and, it is hoped, avoid further trouble with the law.

The inmates we've worked with are very highly motivated and interested in what they're doing--it's not like pulling teeth.
--Ruth Exelby, head of training, British Printing Industries Federation

Research has shown that this approach can work. According to a recent report from the Learning and Skills Development Agency, prisoners who received training and education had a significantly lower recidivism rate one year after release--about 20 percent versus the national average of 44 percent.

When looking for new additions to the training program, Standford Hill aims to identify industries with plenty of job opportunities and services the prison service itself needs.

"We look outside first--can we get people skilled in the jobs that are around?" said Mike Cresswell, industries and enterprise manager at Standford Hill Prison.

"The jobs that are out there are in the latest technologies and IT," he added. "We thought, we'll try and get something going like that."

The digital realm of the printing industry, by all appearances, is a promising area in which to train prisoners. That is due in part by the fact that digital skills are hard to come by in the current work force.

"The printing industry definitely has both a skills gap and a skills shortage," said Ruth Exelby, head of training at the British Printing Industries Federation (BPIF).

This is due, Exelby said, to insufficient investment in young people coming into the industry, an aging work force and a lack of training on the latest digital equipment. "The printing industry tends to buy a lot of new kit but don't do enough training to keep up with it."

At the same time, the HM (Her Majesty) Prison Service has a need for the quick-turnaround color printing that the latest digital machinery provides.

Wayne Cook, print manager for HM Prison Services, said, "We have seven conventional print centers in the prison service, but we could never do short-run, full-color work."

Print work for the prison service totals $3.46 million (2 million pounds) in revenue each year, according to Cook. But he believes that there are more print jobs out there for Standford Hill's new digital print center, with its short lead times and color capabilities, to fulfill.

The center was officially opened at the end of January, after a few months of planning and installation. It features two Xerox commercial machines--the Nuvera 100 Digital Copier/Printer and the DocuColor 5252 Digital Color Press, a specialized booklet maker from Morgana--and a handful of PCs. The prisoners design the print materials--brochures, pamphlets, business cards--with Adobe Creative Suite software.

Most of the Standford Hill print center's work will be for the prison service, though it's possible that other government departments or outside businesses will contract work with it as well.

Xerox was chosen for its reputation as a trusted vendor within the prison service, as its equipment is used in the service's seven existing print centers. This made the procurement process easy and allows for the added benefit of simple networking between print centers.

"If we decide in the future we want to network machines between the print center sites, it's easier with Xerox because (their machines) speak to each other," HM Prison Service's Cook said.

Xerox will provide training to prison supervisors, who will in turn train the prisoners. The copier company will also offer certification to offenders, once they've acquired the necessary skills and, if possible, will interview offenders for job openings within Xerox after their release.

The Standford Hill digital print center employs two staff and nine prisoners. As production gets up to speed, prison staff hope to incorporate five additional inmates, who will be in training at all times.

One of the challenges in training prisoners is their different sentence lengths. It can take up to six months to fully train an individual on design and printing tasks, depending on how much previous IT knowledge they have, though inmates may be at Standford Hill for anything from a few days to a few years, with the average stay being nine weeks.

Attracting prisoners to the digital print center has not been a challenge, though, as they seem to recognize how useful digital print skills could be to them in future.

"The inmates we've worked with are very highly motivated and interested in what they're doing--it's not like pulling teeth," the BPIF's Exelby said.

Because the Standford Hill digital print center is so new, the ultimate goal--landing the prisoners jobs upon their release--has yet to be achieved. But with the possibility that some may attain Xerox certification and even be considered for positions within the copier giant, the chances look good.

The printing industry is conservative, "but the increase in awareness of corporate social responsibility means many more employers are interested in providing support for the community, and this is clearly a good way to do that," Exelby said.

Sylvia Carr of reported from London.