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Behind bars - new business gives prisoners a chance

28 February 2018

Helen Black

Helen Black (above) is pushing for progress when it comes to making a positive difference for men and women behind bars.

"I’m in prison, shoulder to shoulder with a convicted murderer. Let’s call him, John. He has a look of genuine surprise on his face as I look at his work and tell him how great it is – he’s tackling some 3D modelling for a business project we’re doing. Positive encouragement and compliments are not something John’s heard much before in his life.

"John’s been homeless; his education, patchy at best. Most of his life has been spent in a criminal environment. He is also keen to learn, discovering that he is smart (he’s now studying a degree at Uni) and capable, and that he can contribute to a team. The latter are traits any employer would want.

"I’m surprised I’m in prison too, but for very different reasons.

"If you’d said to me two years ago I’d be setting up a working graphic design studio with 12 prisoner employees, I’d have laughed. But, here I am working to put real businesses behind bars and in the process restart lives. Already for prisoners, such as John, the positivity our wonderful Studio Managers provide and the opportunity to work on real jobs is making a difference.

"I’ve always liked business, but I love social enterprises. It’s the point where entrepreneurship meets the common good; where profits go into achieving something more than just money in someone’s pocket. workRestart, is a social enterprise and I work in the Industry Engagement Team. I’ve often been asked, but why prisoners? Why not someone more ‘deserving’? I ask them – what do you think the cost is to our communities if we don’t give prisoners a chance?

"Australia has more than 26,500 prisoners costing close to $3 billion to look after annually. Re-offending rates average 46 percent. That means almost half the people incarcerated, today, will be back inside within two years of release. It’s not just a huge financial cost. It’s also the emotional and social costs to our communities.

"The reasons prisoners reoffend is complex. Impacting factors include drug and alcohol addiction, mental health, low education and lack of employment opportunities. Research from over 400 international studies shows the single most important factor in reducing re-offending rates is employment. However, prisoners are often locked out of employment due to lack of education and experience.

"The work our team is doing to put businesses behind bars allows prisoners to have real world work experience, especially in digital industries, which increases employment pathways on release. The people we work with don’t make excuses for their behaviour – they own their past, understand the impact it’s had on families and communities and genuinely want to change. Our motto is “your past doesn’t have to define your future”. So, whether they’re convicted of theft, drugs, break and enter or yes, even murder, if they say, ‘I want a different future’, they’re welcome to participate.

"I’m motivated by the opportunity to make a difference – to want a different future – even if it’s just a few steps in the right direction, because the alternative is to keep sliding backwards."

Helen Black is one of nine Australians awarded a 2018 Westpac Social Change Fellow. She says the Scholarship is invaluable to her, providing her with the opportunity to look at best practise social enterprises working with prisoners across the world and open up collaboration opportunities: “It will also enable me to connect with other social entrepreneurs and change makers, so I can both learn from and contribute to their journeys.”


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