A Chat with Dee Norval, CEO at Digital Skills Training Company For UK Prison Leavers: Breakthrough

Breakthrough selects and trains exceptional prison leavers to bring diverse, inspiring talent to progressive tech businesses. We do this by running bootcamps in prison and in the community and then partnering with employers to hire our graduates through our fully supported apprenticeships.


How did you come up with the idea for the company?

My background is in clinical development consulting; I was unaware of the unique challenges in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) until a rather random placement through Year Here in HMP Wandsworth, one of Europe’s largest prisons. I was working with men coming up to release and post-release to support them into employment. The people worked with were really smart, creative, resilient and often really funny. I was then amazed by how difficult it was for these men to get into employment; they were better than many of the applicants I was interviewing in my consulting job!

And when you begin to explore the CJS as a member of the UK public, it becomes even more worrying. Nearly half of all prison leavers will re-offend within 12 months (costing >£18bn to the taxpayer) and yet those that are employed are half as likely to re-offend as their unemployed peers. The Apprenticeship Levy (which is like a use-it-or-lose-it tax) is over £1bn underspent, which means there is a lot of money left on the table that companies could be using to invest in this group.

Tech companies are crying out for diverse, problem solving and entrepreneurial talent, so Breakthrough seemed like a no-brainer.


How has the company evolved over the last couple of years?

The Covid-19 pandemic felt like it completely crushed the business, but the pivots we were forced to make have been a blessing. Prisons were completely shut down from March 2022 until earlier this year, so we had to work outside prisons, in the community. As an organisation, we are now scaling fast.

The team grew 350% in this quarter alone and we have built incredible partnerships with tech companies which allow us to really punch above our weight as a social impact start-up.

What can we hope to see from Breakthrough in the future?

Breakthrough will be defined by our alumni. We expect the prison leavers we are working with now to progress in their tech careers and be really powerful and influential voices. Through their success, they will be well-positioned to demonstrate the huge benefits companies can gain from people who have experienced prison.

We will be expanding geographically and into other industry areas (Green Economy watch this space). Most importantly, Breakthrough is trail-blazing new ways to work with the prison system so in the future we will be the organisation that brings innovation and some well-needed competition into this archaic and expensive system so society can benefit from this huge untapped potential of this population.