Life after prison – new ventures for employment and business

The last weeks has been great for me doing something new and learning about new issues – by this I meant learning about the Criminal Justice system and meeting several organisations, legal professionals, charities, leaders, academics, and persons who are committed to helping returning citizens (preferred term now rather than ex-offenders) by supporting them to resume their lives with education, business opportunities, employment skills and support. We were invited to take part in the project known as Project ReMake, which was the starting point for getting involved in this area of work.  I will discuss some of the people, organisations, leaders and programmes I have met and how I understand a little bit more on the great work, policies and the tasks still in hand to help with a very complex and emotive criminal justice system. My disclaimer is that I don’t have much exposure to prisons neither the legal system, so I am unable to speak in detail about those areas.  However, who knows, perhaps one day I may visit a prison as part of my work in libraries and as an information professional, as have my ex-colleagues for presentations in the past, and many other prison librarians. 

When I first start in my current role at the British Library, I received a handwritten letter from a prisoner who was researching kenkey (cornmeal) in preparation for starting her business when she was released from prison.  At that time, I hadn’t received any enquiry from prison before, and although I was able to find information and post it back to the person – I never met the person nor was I able to follow up and find out how the person got on with her business venture when she was released.  I still secretly wish she is doing well and even if the business didn’t happen – I admired her well-written letter asking for information on the topic. 

 “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” – Nelson Mandela

Fast forward to earlier this year, it was a nice surprise to be asked to help students in the Project ReMake project by letting them know the wealth of free resources, access to expertise and support available for business ideas and creativity from the British Library.  I was very motivated from the start after meeting project leader Judge and fellow well-connected Trinidadian Judge Kameel Khan.  Kameel was able to introduce us to the graduates from the previous cohort, as well as the large number of support organisations (from universities to charities) who would assist in the project for this programme.  The introductory session was really heart-warming and inspiring on how important the learning opportunities and support are for someone trying to restart their life after their time away from society.  This initial event happened in late February, but since then I have learnt a lot more on the organisation, people and issues for assisting as well transforming or restarting lives and communities.

The one class I attended was also very useful for me as the trainer covered Competitor Intelligence, but due to time constraints I wasn’t able to attend other classes.  However, I have since hosted about four groups of persons who have visited me at the library since the project initiation and they are amazed with our access to resources and support available for starting their businesses.  One person dubious why I wanted to help and offered to help and support him without looking or asking for something in return – I had to point out that most librarians actually are kind and do support people and businesses all the time!

There are quite a few prison libraries, and CILIP has a Prison Libraries Group. These libraries are there to provide access to education, literacy, skills and leisure, and…perhaps escape in the books that they read.  The Prison Library Group are doing great work by their Twitter feed and seems to be popular with their programme of engagement with books, reading and education. Their mission is interesting for the provision of library services to prison communities as from their newsletter in 2021, I found the link to The Hardman Directory which offers a free online access as well as ‘contains information on grant schemes and start up loans, education, employers, housing, benefit changes, debt help and mentoring; all relevant to prisoners and/or ex-prisoners and/or to people serving their sentence in the community’.  Their work is very important within the prison system and for preparing return citizens.  I do recall going to an Italian food exhibition in the early 1993s where there was buffalo mozzarella made by female prisoners in the UK.  And recently, colleagues have mentioned that there is a fashion line pop-up in Westfield by ex-offenders called Blank Canvas

Some of the criminal justice organisations I met are doing great work for restoring lives on employability and training skills for people who want gain employment or start their own business.  Some of these organisations that I encountered recently are:

  • Working Change – this is a charity who is the UK’s only employment charity solely for women with convictions.  It was great to hear the support as well as the opportunities for training and learning new skills for women.  There should be more organisation who offer employment.  One example was Capita when I attended the Project Remake event. https://workingchance.org
  • The Corbett Network – has been going for over 40 years and Lady Val Corbett was very pleased to hear about the access to business resources and support we have our library. What was more impressive – is Lady Val’s networking lunch with amazing partners organisations and leaders who are stakeholders in the criminal justice system. It was one of the most memorable networking events I went to as we were discussing persons who were still in prison and how we can support them in and outside.  Some of these programmes included Sainsbury’s employment opportunities, Meganexus Digital Academy for prisoners, and Children’s charity for highlighting the issue with children left on their own to fend for themselves whilst their parent is in prison. https://www.thecorbettnetwork.com
  • Bounceback – I was able to also meet this charity who are helping people with employment skills and turning their lives around.  There is also great at driving lots of people back into work with partner organisations with high success with preventing re-offending.  https://www.bouncebackproject.com
  • Clink Charity – The Clink Charity works to train serving prisoners in catering skills within a real-life work environment whilst helping them gain academic qualifications. They offer great menu opens by students who are working to gain skills and qualifications in the food and drinks industry. https://theclinkcharity.org

One of the main highlights from the last few weeks is the Lady Val Networking Event at the appropriately ex-court dining room at Browns in Covent Garden.  Lady Val was amusing and deeply passionate about Prisoner Re-integration with her Corbett Network… “coalition of charities, social enterprises, and non-profit organisations and businesses with a social mission. These decision-makers are dedicated to reducing re-offending by helping people with convictions find and keep a job”. 

Prison – You may be confined by it, do not be defined by it.

– The Corbett Network

The Chairman of Timpson, James Timpson, was the guest speaker at the lunch and he was one of the best speakers I ever heard! He obviously was influenced by his parents who fostered children whose parents were in prison.  One of his first visits to prisons was when his mother took him and his siblings with her so the foster child could meet their parents in prison.  James spoke of his leadership ethos of kindness and techniques for getting everyone on board and in work with trust, family friendly policies, as well as a real commitment and strategic focus to help ex-offenders to gain training skills and meaningful employment.  He likes people who relish the trust bestowed on them, staff recognition and had some personality to work and service customers.  He was very funny and engaging in his stories, such as have a Rolls-Royce for an employee of the month at Timpson, staff fund for hardship and support on whatever they like (engagement ring, divorce etc), having a day off on your birthday and measuring the happiness index of employees to judge moral and motivation levels.  James also mentioned other great companies, such as Greggs supporting ex-offenders.  We discussed how entrepreneurial most offenders are due to issues prior to offending, or whilst in prison using very little to get what they need (within reason obviously in prison). I was also pleased to hear James mention his roles in prison reform boards, government policy and improvement for criminal justice advocacy. I found out that The Netherlands is also offering great rehabilitation for prisoners to the point that they are closing a third of their prisons.   We certainly have a Champion and angel in him.  Last but not least – it was heart-warming and blessed to heard James end his talk on the importance of kindness, as well as love.  One man talking to room full of women about this was truly impressive and resonates with my own motto.

On my closing note about the project, I only recently was referred to Lucy Vincent from the charity Food Behind Bars who teaches prisoners to cook their own foods and give them skills that they can use when they come out of prison.  Coincidently, the British Library was hosting a Food in Prison event which was interesting to hear the motivations of their business – such as there was no one focussing on the plight of prison food or even talking about it.  Lucy also feels like she is giving a voice to people in prison.  The other panellists had great thoughts on the state of the funding and support for prisoners – there seems to be no interest in making the food interesting or nutritional as the prisons are ‘not on a holiday’. Lucy is hoping to counter this with using the great bakeries, facilities and equipment available in Brixton for making food, as prisons used to in the past.  However, they discussed health, wellbeing and hope for prisoners in happy prisons – whereby we should make better people and societies and in the long run.  This makes sense for cost and benefits analysis with less financial strain on the prison system.

We can examine the capitalist side of prisons and hope for better in future! On a few of the events – the corruption and privatisation for profit of the prison system was mentioned.  Just as I recently read about prison system in Akala’s book ‘Race Class and the Ruins of Empire’.  However, these discussions, thought leaders, activism and businesses – including Judge Kameel Khan – are inspirational and really are doing great work in giving us solutions to a very complex criminal justice system. 

I look forward to hearing some successful business stories from these graduates from Project ReMake, and great examples of good citizenship for those who are motivated to make the best of their new start and ventures this time around.

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