Ex-offenders need second chances not snubs

Ever since I visited Port Phillip Prison’s Youth Unit in Victoria 11 years ago, I have been passionate about supporting ex-offenders. To see smart, talented people languishing behind bars is saddening. But to see them snubbed and shunned when they leave prison is shameful. We need to support ex-offenders to become productive members of society and stop the terrible cycle of recidivism. Virgin Unite has long been an advocate of Port Phillip Prison’s Youth Unit, but we know more need to be done. While I was in Melbourne I enjoyed a fascinating working lunch generously hosted at Press Club Projects with Igniting Change and a group of business leaders and philanthropists. 

While enjoying George Calombaris’ culinary experience inspired by the young men currently in the Youth Unit at Port Phillip Prison, we discussed the state of Australia’s criminal justice system. We encouraged the business leaders to think creatively about how to find more employment opportunities for ex-offenders and giving people a second chance.

We also heard from some brilliant people who are working tirelessly on this important issue, from my dear friend Jane Tewson from Igniting Change, to Anne Hooker, who created and runs the Youth Unit at Port Phillip Prison. We also heard the moving stories of some remarkable people who had come through the other side of the cycle and emerged as inspirations to us all

Tyler Mitchell shared his troubling descent into the drug trade and how he has now reformed himself as a successful entrepreneur with a thriving workout clothing business, Beast & Beauty. Keenan Mundine has spent most of his life in and out of prison, but now uses his experiences to support other young people through his inspiring organisation Inside Out Justice Consultancy. It is so important to listen to and learn from people with real life experience in these situations.

In Australia, as in the UK and elsewhere, most people who leave prison face a mountain of obstacles as they walk free - from drug dependency to outright rejection in the communities they enter. And in both countries, re-offending rates remain unacceptably high (near 45 per cent within two years of release in Australia, near 45 per cent in England and Wales within a year from release.

Business must be part of the solution. Giving people a second chance, a better chance by giving them the dignity of a decent job is our best hope to reduce reoffending rates effectively. In the UK, more and more businesses are beginning to realise the untapped potential of hiring people who have spent time behind bars. Our own experience at Virgin shows that people with prior convictions are among the most motivated and loyal employees you can find anywhere.

Virgin businesses in the UK, including Virgin Trains West Coast and Virgin Active have recruited dozens of people directly from prison, and re-offending is no longer an issue. Everyone agrees that employment makes all the difference. Beyond employment, we are now looking at other ways in which we can take our support into the prison system. Virgin Trains has just launched the first in-prison employability training programme aimed at building the workplace skills prisoners need to make them job-ready on the day of release. Virgin Start-up has partnered with the largest in-prison education provider to take entrepreneurship training behind prison walls.

The young men in Anne’s unit are fortunate enough to find themselves in an environment that is supportive of their personal growth, a place where people can learn to leave their past behind, to nurture their talents, hone their skills and to grab a second chance in life with both hands. Sadly, that cannot be said of most prison systems around the world.

We should think of prisons as greenhouse for the reformed, because the potential for rehabilitation is enormous if we all join forces to get things right. Business must be part of the solution. Offering people a second chance by giving them the dignity of a decent job is our best hope to reduce reoffending rates effectively. By creating opportunities to give ex-offenders better chances through employment, we can make a real difference to society at large.

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