Photo via Cracked It

These Startups Think Jobs Not Sentences Help Keep Ex-Offenders Out of Jail

Some young Londoners are on a mission to help reduce reoffending rates by employing inmates on release.

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Oct 6 2017, 5:15pm

Photo via Cracked It

HMP Wandsworth, one of 14 prisons in London, is a holding 170 percent more inmates than their usable 'certified normal accommodation' (CNA) — the limit for ensuring "good, decent standard of accommodation." And it's not the only one. 70 percent of UK jails are full to the brim, and with more than 95,000 people currently locked up, the UK has highest rate of imprisonment in the European Union. With 60 percent of those released reoffending within 12 months, the system is in crisis.

Following an unforeseen surge in jail population this summer, VICE Impact spoke with some young Londoners on a mission to help reduce reoffending rates. How? By employing inmates on release.

No gimmicks

"A job is a lot more than just income. It's about having a sense of purpose, a routine and feeling useful. It's about having people know your name when you come in on a Monday morning. If you don't have a job, you can miss out on a lot of that, and unfortunately, only 26 percent of people who leave prison find work on release," Frankie Bennett, co-founder of The Hard Yard, a fitness brand that trains and employs ex-offenders to lead workouts across London, told VICE Impact.

Mentoring young men in prisons across London, Bennett noticed a trend. "They all loved to exercise and train and all had their own fitness regimes to keep fit inside their cells and with a bit of research I found that actually sport qualifications were widely available in prison, but on release the jobs just weren't there. And I wandered, 'What if we can get people into work, and on the other hand, get people fit?'" Bennett explained.

"This is how people change perception. It was like a light bulb moment."

Today, The Hard Yard recruits inside three London prisons. Once inmates are released, they take their new recruits onto their training programs, after which, they become fitness instructors and run a series of classes each week, tapping into a market worth £4.7 billion ($6.1 billion).

Training with the Hard Yard. (Photo via the Hard Yard)

The 45 minute work-out takes you into a prison-like space, confined and bare. "It is all based on body weights, no equipment to really mimic that prison cell environment." Bennett explained, offering VICE Impact to come join in. Panic. "You are using the raw power inside your mind, to wake up the raw power inside your body." While, those attending come out fit, for the trainers, the impact is huge. They are employed on a contract and earn a living but, more importantly, they are given a sense of worth and access to a welcoming community of students and co-trainers.

Training with the Hard Yard. (Photo via the Hard Yard)

Since starting out in January 2017, the program has been such a success that The Hard Yard is on the look out for more inmates, but ultimately, wants to use its success to encourage other employers to make more of an effort to hire ex-offenders.

"The stereotype of ex-offenders need to be broken down and we need to judge individuals on where they are now and where their skills are. The guys we have, they are talented trainers and we'd hate to see this going to waste because of the mistakes they did in the past," Bennett explained.

Cracked It

Josh Babarinde, the founder of Cracked It, a social enterprise that hires young offenders and those at risk to repair smashed smartphone screens, agrees with Bennett. They have tons of skills.

"A lot of them used Snapchat to upload pictures of their weed and within minutes, they'd have a number of customers. They know their networks. They know how to use technology and other tools to market their services. They know how to build a contact base, they know how to manage those customers. They know the tricks of the trade! It's just a shame that they are channeling those skills into stuff that is either going to put them in prison.. or in a grave," Babarinde told VICE Impact.

Where most see frustration, he, saw potential for solving the UK's crime crisis. 29 percent of people have a smashed smartphone screen and three out of four don't bother getting it repaired for six months or at all, because the options are too inconvenient. But Cracked It makes it easy and quick. And trains and hires ex-offenders or young people at risk of offending.

"The promise of a career in the longterm isn't enough to help steer them in the right direction. They look for instant gratification. They want to see the value of their work quite quickly."

Many of whom, turn to crime, because of the lack of employment opportunities. "A young person I worked with told me, 'Look we really don't want to be involved in this shit [crime] but I've got no other options. I'm the oldest sibling. I've got a bunch of brothers and sisters. Dad's not about at home. Mum looks after the family but there is no one else to provide but me. So yeah, I go out deal drugs, steal bikes and use the cash to secretly slip into my mum's handbag,'" Babarinde recalls.

And while a number of program work with these young people, the Cracked It believe there is too much focus on the longterm. Because for many, there is no long term. "'They'd tell me 'Look Josh, I won't be alive by the time I'm 24.' They expect that they are going to get caught up in some kind of incident to do with gun and knife violence and die. So the promise of a career in the longterm isn't enough to help steer them in the right direction. They look for instant gratification. They want to see the value of their work quite quickly," Babarinde explained.

And Cracked It does just that. The young people attend training for a week, during which they learn how to repair smartphones screens. Also squeezed in are workshops that aim to help them develop softer skills and qualities that they will need for employment. Once completed Cracked It hires the most efficient for up to a 3-month period.

Jeremy Corbyn getting his phone fixed. (Photo via Cracked It)

For many, this work experience is their first ever. The time with Cracked It serves as a really a safe space for them to develop the norms and customs of the workplace, develop mobility skills and also get really good at phone repair. After which Babarinde, finds that they are ready for full-time employment elsewhere. We support them in doing that through by providing references, looking over CVs etc," Babarinde explained.

In 18 months, Cracked It, has hired more than 120 young offenders and and those at-risk within 6-months of completing the programme, around two thirds are in education, employment or further training.

Working inside and out

"We needed our offices [brand agency] painted so we hired five guys inside this prison to come to work as painters and decorators once they had been released. There was much hilarity around it because they weren't as good as they said they'd be," Francesca Findlater, founder of Bounce Back, explained to VICE Impact.

But Findlater wasn't put off and even managed to find the men more work. "My clients would call and say 'Hey, I heard you have a good group of painters and I would tell them, yes but you should know that they are all just out of prison and they'd say 'Well if it's fine with you, then it's fine with us. And I realised that this is how people change perception. It was like a light bulb moment."

The demand was so high, that Findlater decided to set up a social enterprise that would hire ex-offenders to become painters and Bounce Back was born and has since, worked with private clients on residential and commercial properties as well as major projects with large construction companies working on regeneration sites around London and also runs three training centres within HMP Brixton.

To date, it has helped more than 600 people get into paid employment in construction. And it's only getting bigger. Bounce Back is opening up a 6000 square foot building next week beside HMP Brixton that will host additional construction workshops, which will help them support more ex-offenders from across the UK, reaching out to Bounce Back for work.

READ MORE: This New Jobs Platform Matches Ex-Offenders With Employers

"Support is really important for when people come out. We try to give them that. Usually for a year, sometimes less, sometimes more. We did it for however long is needed," Lindlater told VICE Impact. And the impact is visible in numbers too. Those that go through Bounce Back's support network have a re-offending rate of less than 12 percent against the national average of 60 percent.

If you'd like to help lower reoffending rates you can do so by getting fit prison-style at The Hard Yard , getting Cracked It to fix your smashed phone screen or by getting Bounce Back to paint your room.