Sending bank managers to prison may simply sound like justice but a scheme by the Co-operative Bank doing just that is helping rehabilitate prisoners and reduce re-offending rates.
In fact, a study by Liverpool John Moores University showed that the Co-operative Bank's "accounts for prisoners" scheme has helped reduce re-offending rates by around a third.
The study analysed the behaviour of a group of 107 prisoners who opened an account with the bank before being released from HMP Forest Bank prison in Salford in October 2007. Only 39 per cent of those who opened a bank account have re-offended: the national re-offending rate of prisoners serving sentences of less than 12 months is 59.9 per cent.
"Bank accounts are not the panacea for reducing re-offending rates but as this research shows, it can have a positive impact," says Paul Jones of Liverpool John Moores University. "It is clear that bank accounts are an important element in enabling ex-prisoners to become valuable members of society and other banks should consider following the pioneering work carried out by the Co-operative Bank."
How does the Co-op's scheme work? It's simple. The bank sends staff into prisons to help prisoners set up a bank account and get a cash card before they are released.
The Co-op set up the scheme in 2006 in conjunction with Kalyx, which manages the Forest Bank prison. Since then, the scheme has been extended to 30 prisons across the country.
Giving prisoners access to a bank account before they leave prison is crucial. It helps them get a job and somewhere to live, as Justice Minister Maria Eagle MP points out. "Prisoners' ability to open and run an account to manage their finances can prove key to their resettlement in society once they are released, and access to a bank account is a core component of this.
"Without access to an account, finding a job or accommodation is often much harder for prisoners. In offering bank accounts to prisoners in nearly 30 prisons, the Co-operative Bank scheme is helping the National Offender Management Service make a significant contribution to prisoner resettlement and to reduce re-offending rates," says Eagle.
It's not just about helping them with financial management; having a bank account also helps them psychologically by giving them a big step back into normal society, rather than leaving them outside the mainstream.
"These bank accounts play a huge part in helping to reduce re-offending," says Steve Taylor, Kalyx's deputy director at HMP Forest Bank. "By aiding social inclusion, prisoners are enabled to feel part of the wider community, therefore minimising the chance of them returning to crime."
As our case study, former prisoner James, notes (above, right), "It's amazing how much of a difference getting a bank account makes. It's allowed me to feel part of society again."
Prisoners are offered basic bank accounts under the scheme. These are the accounts launched by the Government some five years ago to reduce social exclusion. They are simple accounts with a cash card but no overdraft. They allow people to set up direct debits and standing orders but they don't allow you to go into the red.
As such, they are great for people not terribly good at managing their money, as there is no temptation to overspend or get into financial trouble. Most major banks offer the accounts but, generally, people have to seek them out. The main banks don't promote basic accounts as there is no profit to be made from them.
The Co-op is, as far as I can find out, the only bank actively to go out and seek suitable customers for basic bank accounts. More than 3,500 prisoners have opened a basic bank account under the "accounts for prisoners" scheme since it was launched three years ago. And now the bank wants its rivals to join in and help more prisoners across the country.
"We cannot tackle this important issue alone," says Neville Richardson, chief executive of the Co-operative Financial Services. "Therefore, I would encourage other banks to play their part in providing accounts for prisoners so all inmates can have this opportunity."
No other current-account provider has yet signed up for the scheme. When questioned about what it could do for prisoners with no job or home – usual requirements when opening an account – the Nationwide says it may open accounts for prisoners who have a letter from a probation officer or social worker to prove their identity.
It also says that using a prison as a place of residence may not mean that a prisoner is turned down for an account. "We recognise that some prisoners may find it hard to prove their permanent place of residence," says a spokesman. "Where an application does not immediately fulfil our identification criteria, we will assess it on its own merits."
The spokesman points out that the Nationwide supports six charities which help young offenders and the families of prisoners through its charitable foundation.
Similar questions put to the high-street banks prompted puzzlement. "I haven't been asked such a question before," one told me. However, all said that they wouldn't treat prisoners any differently from anyone else when it comes to opening an account.
However, Barclays has launched a pilot project with the UK National Association of Reformed Offenders in three prisons in the east of England. Since November 2008 it has opened 154 accounts for prisoners.
The Co-operative's scheme is to be applauded, but it would be simple for others to join in and offer similar account-opening facilities at other prisons. It could help countless prisoners get a foot back into normal society, which could be a big step towards rehabilitation.
But it could also go some way towards repairing the banks' tarnished reputation. Taking positive action towards helping disadvantaged members of our society rather than squeezing every last penny out of them would be a start. Let's hope the banks are listening.
Set up and go: A former prisoner's life-changing account
James [not his real name] was released last year from Forest Bank prison, and now has a full-time job and lives with his partner and first child. He says opening a bank account before his release helped him make a fresh start.
The 34-year-old had two spells in prison for minor offences, but now says he won't be going back. "Getting a bank account from the Co-operative has given me a sense of self-respect and allowed me to feel part of society again. Every time I go into a shop and use a debit transaction I feel good about myself. It is amazing how much of a difference it makes."
He really noticed that recently when returning to a store he'd previously been caught shoplifting in. "A shop assistant was following me around, probably because I'd shoplifted there in the past. But this time I wasn't and when I went up with my card and paid, I had a smug look on my face. It's funny but it is a benefit of the card; I got a buzz from it."
His troubles began almost a decade ago when he lost his job. He ran up debts, couldn't repay his mortgage and lost his home. James explains: "It was a disaster, really, once I lost the job and the house."
For James, getting the bank account meant becoming part of society and achieving financial security. Used to handling cash, he says the account has helped him to manage his money. "In the past, money burnt a hole in my pocket. Now I quite like managing the account properly. I only earned the minimum wage but it feels good to be able to pay bills – in many respects, I am no different to anyone else now, and that is a good feeling."