A large number of inmates held within the British prison system spend their days performing work that’s not necessarily related to the day-to-day operations of the prison itself.
As of 2015, 83 prisons across England and Wales partake in public/private partnerships collectively worth £4.7 million (roughly $5.7 million) in which inmates are paid between £40 and £50 per week for performing outsourced work using equipment and materials provided by private companies. “General assembly and packing” is the most popular form of outsourced labor by far followed by institutional laundering, the processing of recyclables and furniture production.
Now, thanks to an innovative partnership between prefab homebuilder Osco Homes, a subsidiary of nonprofit social housing consortium Procure Plus, and HM Prison Hindley, a former borstal-turned-all-male adult penitentiary located in the suburbs of Manchester, a select group of inmates are putting a dent in Britain’s affordable housing crisis by producing homes.
At the scheme’s launch six months ago, 10 inmates, all serving the final year of their respective sentences, underwent extensive training in joinery, plastering, bathroom fitting and the like under the employ of Osco Homes. As of now, four of those inmates have been released, retaining their employment with the company with a salary of £19,000 ($23,200) annually. Income earned by still-incarcerated workers — “over and above what they would usually receive from the prison” per Construction Manager Magazine — is held in a trust, which becomes available after their release.
Working out of a special, highly supervised production facility located at Hindley, the inmates have been tasked with constructing panelized external walls, floors and ceilings for a total of eight affordable prefabricated abodes to be installed at a Together Housing Group-owned affordable housing development in West Yorkshire. Construction Manager notes that Osco Homes plans to eventually produce two prefab residences per week through the scheme and, within three years, complete 1,000 new, much-needed homes for a country suffering through a historic dearth of affordable housing options.
As for the four aforementioned erstwhile inmates who have served their time and since transitioned into salaried Osco Homes employees, they’ve relocated to the install site in West Yorkshire to complete work on the homes that they initially began constructing at the innovative prison-bound prefab assembly plant.
“We learned an awful lot in the factory," says Mark, a 36-year-old former Hindley inmate who was selected for the inaugural training program and is now working full-time for Osco Homes. “We learned how to put the frames together for the houses, rendering the walls, putting the door and window frames in. It was quite intense but probably what we needed.”
“All the guys who have been released are now working on site and improving their skills as well as earning a regular wage. You can see the pride they take in the work and the chances of re-offending for any of them is minimal,” Mike Brogan, chief executive of Procure Plus, explains to Construction Manager.
Referring to the program at Hindley as a “really big success,” Brogan goes on to elaborate that in addition to increasing the size of the existing factory at Hindley, he hopes to establish prefab assembly plants within at least three other facilities that are part of Her Majesty’s Prison System. “It’s not just about building homes, but providing training and opportunities to guys who may have taken a wrong turn in life but are keen to change. With the factory we’re providing this two-fold service," says Brogan.
In addition to the in-development affordable housing project in West Yorkshire, Kevin Ruth of the Together Housing Group tells Construction Manager that Osco Homes’ prison-built prefabs could be built for two other potential affordable housing sites: “I’ve also been to the factory, I’ve met the lads and see how enthusiastic they are and what a difference it all makes, it’s a no brainer really."
As for Mark, he plans to make a career out of his newfound modular homebuilding skills: “I’m on a salary, have a full-time job and hopefully it’ll be a job for life really. I want to be promoted through the company, go from say a site operative to a site manager and I think there’s plenty of opportunity, it’s just all up to me.”
Built following World War II, Excalibur Estate, a historic affordable housing development in suburban London, is an early example of British prefab. It's also at the center of an ongoing preservation war. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Prefab homes: The main weapon in easing a housing crisis?
As far as opportunities go, former Hindley prisoner Mark has found himself, somewhat by happy accident, working within an industry that’s increasingly flush with just that — opportunities — as the British government pledges to support the construction of 1 million new housing units by the year 2020.
Factory-built modular homes, generally more efficient, speedier and sometimes less expensive to construct than traditional stick-built abodes, have been championed by prefab proponents as one of the greatest hopes in putting an end to the ongoing housing crisis. As reported by Reuters, the government is throwing its weight behind prefab building by vowing financial support to prefab homebuilders and also promising to set aside public land for potential affordable modular housing developments.
"It's an obvious way to solve the current housing crisis — to use more prefabrication," David Heathcote, an architectural historian at Liverpool John Moores University, tells Reuters.
For better or worse, prefab homes aren’t a new phenomenon in Britain.
The U.K. experienced a considerable prefab boom immediately after World War II, an era in which tens of thousands of factory-built domiciles — “palaces for the people” as they were called — were erected to replace housing destroyed by wartime bombing. Today, one of England’s largest prefab housing tracts borne from this era, Excalibur Estate in suburban South London, is facing the threat of demolition to make way for new development, sparking a fierce preservation battle.
While Excalibur Estate is beloved by residents and architectural preservationists alike, many Britons, particularly older generations, don’t have the most favorable view of prefab housing as, once upon a time, the term "factory-built" was synonymous with leaky, shoddy, subpar construction methods. British prefabs of the 1940s were made with speed ... but were often sloppy as a result.
Advances in off-site construction technology have largely changed all that. Well-insulated, designed using special 3-D software and, in some cases, partially assembled by current and former inmates who are given the opportunity to learn valuable new skills while advancing toward gainful employment once, these most certainly aren't your granny’s postwar prefabs.
“The UK is in the midst of a housing crisis, not only in terms of the volume of homes required, but also in having enough genuinely affordable homes to meet demand,” Brogan told TheBusinessDesk.com, a regional business news website for North West England. “Osco Homes uses the latest innovations in off-site construction to streamline the build process — meaning faster homes — but ensures they’re also sold at a price directly related to the build cost meaning they are much more affordable.”