Should ex-cons become entrepreneurs?

Strangeways prison
For some ex-prisoners, starting their own business is the only viable option on the outside
"61% of people leaving prison re-offend within 24 months. However, if they can find work then that figure drops to just 19%"
  • | by Felicity Hannah

Britain may be entering recovery, but it’s a tough jobs market out there right now.

Graduates and qualified workers report waiting months to find a job that matches their skills, while unskilled workers face a miserable search for employment.

That’s especially true if they are young; nationally there are more than a million people aged between 16 and 24 who are not in employment, education or training.

But if it’s hard for everyone, how much tougher must it be for those leaving prison? Not only do they face the same difficulties as everyone else, they also have a criminal past they must disclose to would-be employers.

As you’d expect, that puts many bosses off.

So what can prisoners do? Is it possible for some of them to launch their own businesses?

What a difference a job makes

Finding work on leaving prison makes a staggering difference to an offender’s chances of staying out of trouble.

In fact, 61% of people leaving prison re-offend within 24 months. However, if they can find work then it drops to just 19% - meaning ex-prisoners, society and the taxpayer all benefit.

Timpsons, a company best known for shoe and watch repairs, has a policy of considering former offenders for jobs. It even conducts training in Liverpool Prison and employs some prisoners on day release.

John Timpson, the chairman of the company, explains: “There are about 88,000 people in prison and they come in all shapes and sizes - among the bad and the tricky are plenty that are fantastic.

“When interviewing inside prison we use exactly the same standards we use when recruiting on the outside. With the knowledge that so few other companies are willing to give them a job, we have the pick of a talented bunch.”

Mission impossible

No-one knows better than Shaun Attwood how hard it is to find employment with a conviction. He served six years in America for his part running a drug ring.

When he returned to the UK he found it impossible to find work, despite having a first-class degree and considerable experience as a successful stockbroker. Because of his past, he couldn’t get a job stacking shelves.

“I was applying for telesales in my home town," said Shaun. "But there’s a box that asks you if you’ve got a criminal record and if you tick it no-one gets in touch. I had been a stockbroker, I had a degree, but my CV went straight into the trash can.

“They didn’t even respond; it got to the point where the dole told me I needed to start lying! I’d already been thinking about going self-employed, so that’s what I did.”

Shaun says that finding work is vital to rehabilitation, especially if your criminal background was lucrative. “I think it’s essential," he said. "You need to focus on a legal occupation to earn money to pay your bills and live. The temptation of making fast cash from selling drugs is always in the background.”

He’s not the only former prisoner to find it impossible to secure legitimate employment after release.

According to the Prison Reform Trust, 66% of prisoners think having a job is important in terms of not reoffending. Yet in 2010-11 just 26% of prisoners entered employment on leaving prison.

When Shaun found it impossible to find work, he didn’t fall back into his criminal past. Instead, he launched his own business delivering talks at schools and warning kids away from drugs.

He’s also now published two books about his experiences as a drug-dealing stockbroker and inmate of a US jail (you can read more about Shaun over on his website).

Launching his own business was key to Shaun’s rehabilitation. So is this an option for former prisoners who aren’t lucky enough to find an understanding employer like Timpsons?

Help for criminals turned entrepreneurs

Of course, it’s not just employers who may be shy about recruiting prison leavers; banks aren’t that keen to lend to them either. Former prisoners often have no job or home security, no references and certainly no capital behind them. Starting up a business may seem like an out-of-reach dream.

A good example is Duane Jackson, who now runs the accountancy software firm Kashflow. He left prison with no qualifications and, although he had excellent IT skills, no-one would employ him or help him start up his own business.

“I felt like I went to a hundred banks - but no-one was willing to give me a loan when I had bad credit, no security and no experience,” he explains. “I grew up in the care system, so I didn't have family to offer financial or moral support.”

But help was available. The Prince’s Trust gave Duane a loan and a grant. Kashflow now employs people in several different countries and has thousands of customers. The Prince’s Trust can assist former prisoners up to the age of 25 (it also offers a leaving prison programme for young offenders, designed to help them into work or training).

And there are other charities around that can help. Startup gives ex-offenders a chance to turn their lives around by becoming self-employed, and offers financial and personal support to would-be entrepreneurs.

Since 2006, it has worked with more than 1,200 men and women who have a history of prison, helping more than 300 start their own businesses. It claims to have achieved a reoffending rate of under 5%, showing what a powerful incentive work can be in helping people to stick to the straight and narrow.

However, while help is available to a lucky few, there isn’t an unlimited pot of money. Many prisoners don’t have that kind of support and have to rely on friends and family to fund their business endeavours. Many more remain on benefits or reoffend, when a job could have helped them turn their lives around.

Would you hire a former prisoner?

Of course, former prisoners making good and launching their own businesses does raise some issues.

While employers might have access to CVs and references, customers don’t. And while former prisoners may have served their debt to society, many people would rather not have a man with a history of violent offences coming to paint their fence, for example.

Should there be some sort of requirement for tradesmen and anyone coming to your home to inform you of their criminal record, or would that penalise them even further in their hunt for legitimate employment?

There’s a lot to consider, so do share your thoughts with us via the Covered mag Facebook page or on Twitter.