If you want to know what a second chance looks like, speak to Chris McConkey. Chris is a 29-year old Virgin Trains employee, and I had the pleasure of meeting him in Edinburgh last week. This wonderful young Scotsman had previously spent five months in prison on an assault charge, and in his own words, the experience changed his life. “I came out ten times more motivated than I have ever been in my life,” Chris said. “Because of what I’d put my family through, I wanted to make up for the suffering I had caused.” He attended a Virgin Trains recruitment fair and was taken on a management training apprenticeship, then worked in customer service roles on board and at stations on along the West Coast business. Finally, an engineering role came up, and he now works in a depot in London serving the East Coast business.
Chris is one of several dozen ex-offenders taken on by Virgin Trains after being identified through its ex-offender recruitment programme launched in 2013, and he is living proof of how someone can turn their lives around and fulfil their potential. As an entrepreneur and employer who needs to attract people with talent and enthusiasm, looking beyond criminal records and seeing people’s potential has always made good business sense to me.
It should also make good sense to society as a whole.
More than 90,000 people are currently serving prison time across the UK. More than 75,000 are released every year, yet most face a mountain of obstacles as they walk free – from drug dependency to outright rejection in the communities they enter. At present, roughly 44 percent of people leaving prison re-offend within a year. That’s a staggering and, frankly, unacceptable figure indicative of society’s many large and small failures when it comes to rehabilitation and re-integration of those with a criminal past. It’s also a colossal waste of public funds: some estimates put the cost of re-offending at £13 billion per year.
Taking a fresh look at rehabilitation and coming up with better solutions is also an exercise in correcting misperceptions and building greater awareness. The UK’s prison population has doubled since the mid-1990s, but that sharp increase has of course not corresponded with a doubling in crime, as much of the public continues to think. The UK has simply been sentencing more people to serve custodial sentences than before, and we know now that many of those, especially non-violent offenders, probably should have never been sent to prison in the first place.
Whilst sentencing reform and alternatives to custodial sentences must be part of the conversation, we also know that education and employment are key, and re-offending rates drop significantly where employers set aside their reservations, open their recruitment to ex-offenders and give someone with a prior conviction the dignity of work.
Against this backdrop, I was encouraged to see this issue return to the top of UK government priorities last week, when the Ministry of Justice released its Education and Employment Strategy. Many of the details remain to be worked out, as always with strategy documents, but I’m quite positive about plans to improve access to apprenticeships and to increase options for release on temporary license (ROTL), which will undoubtedly make re-entry into the workforce a lot easier, vastly improving the odds of returning to a normal life.
Likewise, I was thrilled to learn of last week’s launch of Release Scotland, a new initiative backed by Virgin Trains and other businesses, charities and government agencies working in Scotland to help people with convictions develop their potential in the workplace and contribute to a successful, growing economy.
Release Scotland will provide a one-stop shop for employers seeking advice and help with recruiting people with convictions, offering practical steps in the full recruitment process from application stage to interview stage to making the decision and creating a supportive work environment.
At Virgin, we have long believed that if we can change business for good, we should also make an effort to change the world for the better. In this spirit, I will continue to challenge the Virgin family to do more to reintegrate ex-offenders into society. And I hope other businesses will do, too. To give the last word to Chris: “By all means question what the criminal record is but don’t write someone off. You won’t get someone more motivated than someone who has limited opportunities.”