Giving prisoners a break
By Emma Jacobs
New start: Susanna Grant’s fortunes changed thanks to the Timpson Foundation, which recruits and trains former convicts
Starting her new job, Sarah Haines suffered the usual first-day nerves. But she was also excited at the prospect of visiting Greggs bakery at lunch time. “I could feast. It was doughnuts galore,” she says, fizzing with joy at the memory. For Ms Haines the cakes represented a taste of freedom. The new job was a step towards a new life, outside prison. At night she returned to Askham Grange, the women’s open prison in the north of England.
Ms Haines’s job at Max Spielmann, the photography shop, was while she was on day release and represented an opportunity to transform her life.
In 2008, aged 25, she had been sentenced to five years in prison for almost killing someone. At that time her life was very different. Trapped in an abusive relationship, she hoped that becoming an escort might give her the income to escape. “It was very unlike me but when you’re desperate it changes you.” She says 10 days later she was attacked by a client, and stabbed him. She was initially charged with attempted murder and prepared to argue self-defence, but ultimately pleaded guilty to causing grievous bodily harm.
Going to prison may be scary for some but for Ms Haines, who had tried to take her own life shortly before becoming an escort, it was just another place to go. “If you have nothing to lose it isn’t bad,” she reflects. “My self-esteem was on the floor.”
Nearing the end of her sentence – which had been reduced to three years – she began hunting for jobs. Having been employed as a waitress and sales assistant in shops from the age of 15, she had a fair amount of work experience but that counted for nothing once prospective employers saw that she had a criminal record. “None of my experience mattered,” she recalls.
Susanna Grant, 39, who was sentenced to five years for armed robbery, but used to work in a bank approving loans, echoes Ms Haines’s comments. “I drove the car, I didn’t go into the [Post Office that was held up]. It’s not an excuse but you can’t explain that in a little box on a form.”
Both their fortunes changed, however, when they met Dennis Phillips, who oversees the Timpson Foundation. Founded 11 years ago, it recruits and trains prisoners and puts them to work in businesses run by Timpson, the family-owned chain of cobblers, dry-cleaners, key cutters and photographic developers.
Mr Phillips gave them the opportunity to explain their background and work experience face to face. “It’s too easy to judge prisoners rather than understand,” he says. “It’s not about feeling sorry for them – just overcoming misunderstandings.”
Paul King, who heads the marketing department at Pertemps People Development Group, which manages the Employers’ Forum for Reducing Re-offending, agrees that the biggest hurdle is getting former prisoners in front of employers. He believes that meetings, rather than faceless application forms, allow former convicts to challenge misconceptions and “result in successful recruitment”. He points out: “Employers are encouraged to judge an applicant on merit, but application forms are not always the best way of doing so.”
Mick May, chief executive of Blue Sky Development, a social enterprise that employs people out of prison to undertake low-skilled tasks for local authorities and private companies, believes that many more employers could recruit ex-offenders: “I would invite big business to look at their supply chain.” Companies that outsource menial tasks can exert pressure on their contractors’ recruitment policies. “Almost all businesses have jobs that can be filled by those with basic skills.”
Mr Phillips advises other companies on engaging with former inmates. However, there are great swaths of inmates he would never dream of employing. He would not, for example, hire “prolific offenders”, nor arsonists or sex offenders. When he does finally meet a preselected group of convicts he looks for personality, an ability to sell themselves and he needs to know they are remorseful. “We mustn’t forget the victims,” he says.
Mr May agrees that recruitment can be tricky. He relies on ex-offenders scrutinising applications to find potential employees with the right attitude. “If you’ve been in prison, you know who wants to make a go of life,” he observes.
Today 8 per cent of Timpson’s 3,000-strong workforce are former offenders. Of those Mr Phillips says there is a 75 per cent retention rate, which compares favourably with the rest of the company’s employees.
After their interview with Mr Phillips, both Ms Haines and Ms Grant were offered sales jobs in Timpson-owned stores that they could attend while on day release. Prison staff, Ms Grant says, were often discouraging.
Adjusting to work after being inside was initially a shock, says Ms Haines. “Prison softens your mind. You don’t have to use your brain.” In fact, it took her only a couple of days, she says, to get back into working. “I was happy. I love talking to people.”
She never made a secret of her return to prison at night, particularly because she had to decline post-work drinks. “I didn’t care I was going back to prison because I loved work.”
Over the weeks and months her job became increasingly important to her identity. She chatters incessantly about it, she says, even when she is not at work and loves talking to customers about important life events. “People bring in their memories. They talk about births, marriages, things that they take pictures of.”
Today, three years into her job, she feels fiercely loyal to the company that employed her (although she has tired of her lunchtime cakes from Greggs).
“It’s not massively well paid but I’m never going to be paid £25,000 a year. I’m a realist. Most people deserve a second chance. It benefits society. Do you want people to be jobless or working, repaying their debt?”
Ms Grant, who has two children, has turned down a higher-paid job because she feels so indebted to her employer. Mr May says that “ex-offenders can be significantly more loyal to their company than other employees”.
Only once, says Ms Haines, has her past caused problems at work. Early on a tabloid journalist doorstepped the shop. After asking him to leave, she hid in the back office and broke down. “I was scared everyone knew what I’d done,” she says, adding that she does not tell customers about her stint in prison in case they judge her harshly. “It’s not who I am. It’s something in my past.”
Ms Grant says that a few sales staff from neighbouring shops, with whom she used to banter, shunned her once they found out about her criminal past. One of her friends, who does not have a criminal record and is unemployed, is resentful of the opportunity she has been given, believing she has benefited from positive discrimination. Ms Grant is sympathetic to her friend’s position but is pragmatic. “I know I’ve done wrong. I’ve made it right now. I’ve been given another chance.” It has kept her focused. “My job is my safety net. It keeps me in a routine. I know I’ve got to go to work. I don’t want to mess up.”
For Ms Haines, the shop job has proved her salvation. “Everything nice in my life has come from this,” she says.