Prisoners on average will have committed an “astonishing” 41 previous offences, the Justice Secretary has revealed.
At a lecture hosted by the think-tank Civitas, Chris Grayling said "Britain's problem is less about offending and more about re-offending" as he revealed the results of a trial of a payment-by-results scheme to rehabilitate prisoners.
The pilot, run by private investors Social Finance with support from a number of voluntary organisations, has seen re-conviction rates at Peterborough and Doncaster prison come down.
Mr Grayling also said he wanted to see ex-offenders brought into prisons to mentor serving inmates - and even vowed to consider employing a serving offender in his own department, the Ministry of Justice.
"There's another thing that offenders will have in common in their backgrounds - there is a strong chance they will committee crimes before," he said.
"If you are serving time in prison, on average you will have committed an astonishing 41 previous offences."
Speaking after the lecture, Mr Grayling added: "That's just an indication of the fact that we're dealing with a group of people who have gone round and round the system.
"80% of the people who arrive in our prisons have already been through a community sentence.
"Of those who come into our prisons, half will re-offend within 12 months.
"We're dealing with a problem that just keeps going round and round and round.
"We sit and talk to a group of prisoners, almost every time you'll find these people are in for the second, third or fourth time."
The Justice Secretary said the results of the payment-by-results pilot for prisoners sentenced to less than 12 months in jail in Peterborough had been "promising".
Between September 2008 and March 2010, Peterborough had a re-conviction rate of 41.6%.
This fell to 39.2% between September 2010 and March 2012 as the new scheme was trialled.
Nationally, re-conviction rates rose to 39.3%.
Mr Grayling added: "Both of them are steps in the right direction.
"Peterborough, the model I'm looking at, is actually very encouraging indeed."
The pilot provided offenders with help as they prepared for release from jail and then access to services they needed out of prison, including housing, employment and financial services.
Ministers are planning to roll this out to all prisoners serving less than 12 months in legislation going through Parliament in the Offender Rehabilitation Bill.
In other newly-published statistics, a similar scheme at Doncaster prison showed a lower re-conviction rate between October 2011 and March 2012, compared with the same months in 2008/09 and 2009/10.
During the lecture, Alistair Chambers, employment director with non-profit organisation Break The Chain, which works to reduce re-offending, asked Mr Grayling if he would consider employing an offender within the Ministry of Justice.
Speaking after the speech, the Justice Secretary said: "I'm very up for the idea of looking to see where we can find more educational or work opportunities for former offenders and of course we should lead from the front with that.
"We're a big organisation that does an awful lot of things and there's no reason why we shouldn't look to find opportunities within the organisation that are right for them."
Mr Grayling added there was no reason why ex-offenders could not find positions in the public sector, including within the National Health Service (NHS).
He said: "There are other areas like the health service where there are opportunities.
"I see no reason why a former offender cannot do an apprenticeship course and end up in a technical role, in NHS logistics for example.
"We have employers across the board willing to give offenders a chance and it's in all of our interest to ensure that someone who has been to prison gets a chance to get into employment when they leave and not re-offend again."
The Justice Secretary said ex-offenders "gone straight" were best positioned to "get under the skin of the person looking to move on from a life of crime".
"They will have faced the same challenges," he said.
"They know the complexities and know it's a hard hill to climb."
The Government is to undertake the biggest reorganisation of the prison estate in more than 20 years, creating a nationwide network of around 70 "resettlement prisons" so nearly all offenders are released into the area in which they will live and be supervised.
And it will make it harder for offenders to move homes while they are under supervision, to ensure continuity in the support they receive.
The plans will also see England and Wales divided into 21 areas, which align with local authorities and Police and Crime Commissioner areas.
Private and voluntary sector organisations will then be invited to bid for work in these areas.
The reforms will be rolled out across England and Wales by 2015.
Commenting on the payment-by-results pilots, Max Chambers, head of crime and justice at Policy Exchange, said: "Considering that these results relate to a period in which providers were just finding their feet, these results are extremely encouraging.
"Payment-by-results is clearly working, with re-offending reductions far exceeding national performance.
"While these results confound expectations and will no doubt dismay critics of the Government's reforms, providers know they will have to continue to work hard and innovate to sustain this great early progress.
"But all the evidence indicates that things are on the right track."
Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan MP warned against rolling out the payment-by-results scheme to the whole probation service before the pilots had run their full course.
He said: "We need to have confidence that the safety of the public is not being put at risk and schemes work before they are rolled out around the country.
"This is what this government should have done with their plans on probation instead of hastily rolling them out untested and untried."