Many ex-prisoners end up reoffending because they have little hope of employment on the outside. The out4success recruitment agency, which is run by ex offenders, provides a solution.
A few months into his 14-month sentence for assault at Wealstun prison, in Yorkshire, Grant Doyle was given a job inducting new prisoners. Straightaway, Doyle noticed many of the prisoners were not “new” at all. He found himself inducting a steady stream of ex-prisoners returning to jail soon after release. Frustrated by what he calls the “vicious circle of crime and punishment”, which sees 60 per cent of prisoners on short sentences reoffend within a year, Doyle hit upon a business idea to address the problem. Together with fellow inmate Mark Hirst, Doyle launched the Out4Success recruitment agency for ex-offenders. Other agencies exist, but this one is different because the managers themselves are ex-offenders
Doyle’s belief was that meeting people who could both empathise with their situation and act as intermediaries with employers would ease the transition of ex-prisoners into new lives. Despite the logistical difficulties of getting the business off the ground from their prison cells, chairman Doyle and vice-chairman Hirst formulated a business plan. Upon his release in January, Doyle rented a suite of smart offices in the centre of Wakefield and poured so much energy into the project that the official launch took place in Westminster just two months later, with the backing of Leeds MPs Stuart Andrew and Andrea Jenkyns. Justice secretary Michael Gove has also spoken enthusi- astically about the idea.
“Most ex-offenders and people in jail won’t engage with people on the outside trying to help if they regard them as authoritarian,” says Doyle. “They can be suspicious of people in shirts and ties. But we will always be classed as ex-offenders like them and we’ve had the same experiences of terrible food and uncomfortable beds. They can be pretty nervous when they come to see us, but as soon as they know we’re also ex-offenders, their nerves vanish and communication barriers come down.”
About a quarter of ex-prisoners reoffend within a year, but the figure is far higher for short-sentenced prisoners and reoffending costs the taxpayer £11 billion a year. According to a Working Links report on employing ex-offenders, employment is the most important factor in reducing reoffending rates.Yet discrimination is rife and only around 18 per cent of employers in the study said they had employed someone with a known conviction. An even more telling statistic is that 74 per cent of newly released prisoners remain jobless. No wonder Doyle found himself inducting the same prisoners time and again.
Doyle’s background was different from the majority of prisoners at Wealstun. A successful businessman, he ran estate agencies in both Lancashire andYorkshire prior to the incident that led to his conviction for assault. Doyle took the law into his hands after a group of burglars raided his commercial premises in Keighley five nights on the trot. Spotting what he believed were members of the gang in the street, he tried to plough them down in his car. “As the week went on my state of mind deteriorated. I became more and more stressed and I didn’t feel the police were doing enough to help. But I accept that I was guilty of assault and that two wrongs don’t make a right,” he says.
Doyle was sentenced on his 32nd birthday, on June 20, 2014, to 14 months in prison. The first two weeks were spent in Leeds jail locked up 23.5 hours a day in his cell, before he was transferred to Wealstun. Bright and articulate, Doyle landed a job as a business development manager assessing the prisoners’ levels in English and maths. Later, he worked on the induction programme, which was when he had the idea for the agency.
Doyle and Hirst received guidance in setting up Out4Success from Victoria Blakeman, the lead development officer for rehabil- itation services at Prospects career services. An ex-prison governor with insight into prisoners’ lives, Blakeman was impressed with their vision and drive. “It is doubly difficult to come out of prison and get a job so to set up a business to help other people do so is no mean feat. They’re also running it in a selfless way as they’re not taking any money until it’s profitable,” she says. Blakeman continues to give advice to the partners and describes Doyle as “totally committed, with a fantastic work ethic. He’s always calling me at 6.30am to discuss his latest ideas”.
The greatest value of the agency, she says, is in providing hope and direction to ex-offenders immediately after their release. “It can be a daunting and demoralising time and those critical first hours and days can make or break you,” she says. “But if you know that you’re spending the first day with your family, then seeing Grant and Mark on the second day, it provides focus and structure. They’ll also be working to build a rapport with the prisoners before they leave jail because the more things in place the better the chance of rehabilitation.”
Another advantage is that Out4Success has already done the hard work in setting up interviews. “They don’t have to worry about disclosure of offences which is a huge relief because there is lots of stigma,” Blakeman says. “They can go to the interview knowing the businesses are open to working with them. This service could be so vital because the longer they’re unemployed, the more likely they are to fall in with the criminal networks they left behind.”
Understanding that ex-prisoners can feel “vulnerable” and “reclusive”, Doyle first tries to build up their confidence. “They are literally thrust out of the prison doors with £46 in their pockets and many don’t know what to do. One of the first things we do is take a video of them doing a mock interview and give them some training. Without help, there’s a strong possibility they would fluff an interview. Once we’ve overcome that barrier we tell them to imagine it’s a date and go and enjoy it. The employers know all about them so they don’t need to worry.”
If he senses a reluctance to go straight, however, Doyle is not averse to speaking bluntly about the realities of life back on the street. “I ask them how much they’d be making selling a bit of coke and if they say £300 or £400 a week, I say ‘you can make that at McDonald’s. But you’re selling Class A drugs and if you get caught again, you will face six to 10 years in jail’. One problem is they can have trouble assigning a numerical value to work and prefer to stick with doing a bit of dodgy dealing. They’re not aware how much money can be earned.”
The stigma facing ex-prisoners was brought home to Doyle when a major high street bank refused Out4Success’ application for a commercial business account. “They turned us down because we were ex-offenders. There’s even discrimination from a bank that’s part-owned by tax payers. Fortunately, a specialist bank for social enterprises stepped in and gave us a secure credit limit of £800,000, which we need to keep our clients going as some companies don’t pay for 30, or even 60 or 90 days.”
Finance was just one of several complex issues that had to be resolved, but Out4Sucess is close to lift-off now, Doyle says. He has secured agreements to develop links with inmates at 12 prisons in the North of England and has partnerships in place with several employers, including Associated Waste Management, in Leeds. “We are the ones putting the brakes on. We’ve pledged to help 180 people, which will save millions for the taxpayer. For the moment we’re focusing on Wealstun where the governor Andrew Dickinson is supportive, and we can trial a lot of our ideas. But we are ambitious and we want to go national within five years.”
One of the largest potential contracts under negotiation is with one of the UK’s biggest home builders. Doyle says they have a shortage of skilled workers and potentially need 20,000 people over the next five to 10 years. Wealstun offers many courses that could be relevant to house building, such as plastering, tiling, bricklaying and interior fitting. “But we’ve also been speaking to Prospects about the possibility of changing workshops in prisons to provide the precise skills they need,” he says.
Doyle admires greatly the policies of the Manchester-based retailer Timpson, which employs more ex-prisoners in its outlets than anyone else. A few years ago Timpson began interviewing prisoners for positions and the project was so successful that the company opened a training workshop in Liverpool Prison. It now has five prison workshops and 16 of the company’s shops, which are known for services such as shoe repairs and key cutting, are managed by people recruited from prison. Owner John Timpson says that out of nearly 300 men and women who have joined the company over the last four years only seven have reoffended. “Timpson’s experience shows that prisoners are often highly motivated. They often work harder and stay longer. We hope to develop relationships with employers who will in time come to trust the ex-prisoners in the same way and value them for their hard work,” says Doyle.
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