Turning prisoners into entrepreneurs

By Will Smale
Business reporter, BBC


Roslyn Callender speaks openly and calmly about her former life as a crack cocaine addict.

"I was on a suicide mission. I just wanted to die," says the Londoner.

"I was out of control, I was a hard crack user. I just wanted to go to sleep and never wake up."

Eventually arrested for importing a class-A drug, Roslyn, 57, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison.

While behind bars, Roslyn was introduced to a charity called Startup, which she says changed her life by helping her set up her own business.

After serving two years of her sentence, and free from drugs since 2009, Roslyn has now been a sole trader for the past 24 months.

She sells beauty products at street markets in south London, and is now planning to expand the business by moving from branded goods to selling her own homemade products.

"It is still early days, and I'm not making a tremendous amount of money, but I'm working hard," she says.

'Transforming lives'

Established in 2006, Startup aims to turn newly released former female prisoners into productive and independent women who own and run their own businesses.

"Without such organisations, the women prisoners go back into the community and they are shunned," says Startup's founder and chief executive Juliet Hope.

"Their kids may be in care, they can't get a job, and they certainly won't get a bank to back their business plans.

Or as Roslyn puts it: "No-one will touch you with a barge pole."

The women chosen for the Startup scheme apply while they are still in prison, or are referred by the probation service, or organisations such as the Prince's Trust.

Whatever crime they have committed has no bearing on their application. Instead they are picked in regard to their business acumen, and ideas and plans for their own company.

image captionStartup has ambitious plans to extend the number of people it works with

Start-up spends £8,000 per four women. All four get to attend weekly workshops for one year, while two also receive help with writing a detailed business plan, and one ultimately gets a grant of £2,500 to support their start-up idea.

It has an impressive success rate. "So far, of the 700 women who have taken part in the scheme, only one reoffended [within the year]," says Juliet Hope.

This compares with a UK average reconviction rate for released female prisoners of 51% within 12 months.

Reducing reoffending

Across the Atlantic a similar scheme is helping male prisoners in Texas.

Based in Houston, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) has worked with more than 1,200 men since it was founded in 2004.

image captionPEP works with prisons from across the state of Texas

PEP's chief development officer Jeremy Gregg says: "We are not asking people to forgive these men. But 95% of all people in prison in the US will be released at some point, and half of those released end up going back to prison.

"The challenge is to keep them out, and we offer a means to achieve it, helping men start up their own companies, or else be far more employable."

PEP is open to male offenders who have a high school diploma. The only ones excluded from applying are sex offenders.

Jeremy describes the application process as "very rigorous", with up to 6,000 applicants each year going through written tests and interviews for the 200 to 300 places.

The successful applicants are then transferred to the Houston prison where PEP operates, and they have an intensive year of classes in various business topics, all free for those who take part. At the end of the 12 months, they get a certificate of entrepreneurship from Baylor University, which is based in Waco, Texas.

"About 120 businesses which PEP has backed are still going strong, including at least two that are making over a million dollars a year in sales," says Jeremy.

"As importantly, the reoffending rate for men who complete the course is just 5%."

Jeremy adds that PEP receives no government funding, and instead relies solely upon donations. The cost per man works out at $8,750 (£5,573), which includes follow-up support after they have completed the course.

Cost issue

Back in the UK, Juliet Hope explains that Startup gets most of its current funding from the National Lottery's Big Lottery Fund.

image captionStartup runs regular drop-in classes for the women it helps

"The terms of the current funding means that we only target women, but historically Startup was open to both men and women.

"We would like to expand Startup significantly, and offer our services to men again. We cost just £8,000 for four women for a year, compare that with £40,000 per year it costs to keep someone in prison.

media captionRyan Blair tells 5 live 'life's about... giving people a second chance'

"We are actively pursuing a pay-by-results contract from the Ministry of Justice, where we would only be paid if the former prisoner in question has not reoffended after a year."

Roslyn Callender says she could not have turned her life around without Startup's help.

"Without their assistance I would have reoffended or gone back to drugs, for sure," she says. "Instead it has helped me realise I'm not that bad a person after all."

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