Fair Threads founder and former prisoner, Luke Anderson

How hard conversations with the private sector are giving ex-prisoners a second chance

Leadership

Would you employ this ex-prisoner? Tony Layh can show you why you should.

When Tony Layh – general manager of Prison Industries at the Department of Justice and Community Services (Victoria) – had the idea of up-skilling ex-offenders and working with external organisations to fill an employment need – the reaction of most companies was: “You want us to employ who?” 

But Layh’s drive to bring a shared-value solutions to prisoners and businesses, especially in light of the worker shortage now facing many industries, was relentless.  

Recidivism – or the likelihood of former prisoners to reoffend – is a widespread problem in the corrections system. Ex-offenders have a 40% chance of returning to prison. The reasons as to why are complex and can include: a lack of housing, low employment opportunities and a lack of social connection.  

“The sad fact is that the majority [of ex-prisoners] who return to jail are unemployed,” Layh told the recent Sharing Value APAC Summit. “Getting a job is a crucial factor in getting these people to turn their lives around – but most importantly, it helps to ensure that there are fewer victims of crime.”  

Tony Layh – general manager of Prison Industries at the Department of Justice and Community Services (Victoria)
Tony Layh – general manager of Prison Industries at the Department of Justice and Community Services (Victoria) | Image source: Supplied

Layh’s vision was a hard sell. He avoided taking his idea to the Department of Justice’s (Victoria) legal team – too much paperwork and talk of KPIs. Instead, he eventually worked with the prison’s procurement department.  

“There continues to be a lot of energy, dollars and government focus put into this space, but the simple fact is that the recidivism rate remains too high. These people are one of the most difficult employment cohorts, as discrimination and stigma are well entrenched.”  

Prison Industries works as a social enterprise within Corrections Victoria and aims to give prisoners technical and soft skills to improve their prospects for employment. Layh’s program aimed to take Prison Enterprise outside prison walls, into direct relationships using the social procurement framework. 

“It’s shared value in action. The right partners buying into commercial and social outcomes and driving the program onwards and upwards,” he says. “But one of the most common questions was – ‘have you got a case study from somewhere that proves this is going to work?’ Of course, the answer was ‘no’.”  

A lot of time and effort went into having “very hard conversations” with potential partners and building trust. Some of the benefits organisations recognised in hiring former prisoners include a simple, accessible recruitment process and potential for greater staff retention. Prison Industries developed partnerships internally, but also externally with The Jobs Bank and the Shared Value Project. So far it has been hugely successful, with commitments made for 225 jobs in the first two years – however there is scope to increase those numbers.  

“For prisoners, an outside job provides them with hope that they can aspire to … when they leave prison and to be able to get that critical second chance. It brings the potential to bring meaning and purpose to their sentence when they are in jail as they can strive to build the skills needed to make them a better employee,” Layh says.  

“It brings the potential to bring meaning and purpose to their sentence when they are in jail as they can strive to build the skills needed to make them a better employee.”

– Tony Layh

PFD Foods is one of the companies that has engaged with the initiative. Scott Mulholland, PFD Foods group general manager, sales and marketing says he was “definitely one of those people that had a twitch” when it came to the concept of hiring ex-inmates. However, there were three factors that sparked his interest – Layh’s enthusiasm and passion, the need for more employees and his belief in thinking outside the box.  

“In order to find new solutions, you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he said. “It yields such a strong benefit to society, to your business commercially as well. We’re now reaping some fruit through that – and we have more resumes coming through – and it’s all the result of having an uncomfortable conversation.” 

PFD Foods – a large food services company with 68 branches throughout the country – has broad interests, from warehousing and transportation to food manufacturing and preparation. Many of its areas of operation suit up-skilled, motivated people from diverse backgrounds.  

 “We see thousands of tenders throughout our organisation every year, and this one was different. Tony’s enthusiasm drove me first and foremost…it was nothing short of inspiring to say the least. 

“You also have the backdrop around COVID and the lack of labour and challenges we have in our businesses around transport, warehouse workers, food processers, warehouse processers, seafood processing rooms, sandwich processers etcetera – so straight away he got my attention.”  

Mulholland says for the cost of having some awkward, frank discussions, shared value programs like this have the ability to not only improve the lives of ex-prisoners, but also assist companies with worker shortages, and it contributes to lowering recidivism rates.   

“There was no blueprint, no case study with what we were doing and we were ok with that. We genuinely believe that – and if you read the stats about re-offenders and the fact that valuable employment can be the catalyst for them to…lead a fruitful life in society – that it ticked a lot of boxes from an employment perspective for us too.”  


 Breaking the stereotypes 

Fair Threads founder and former prisoner, Luke Anderson, (pictured at the top of this article) knows just how tough it is to break back into society after prison. But it was some of the inequities and difficulties he experienced in prison around sourcing new, prison-approved clothing, that led him to build a new life outside the prison’s walls. 

Anderson – a speaker at the Shared Value APAC Summit – was sentenced to two years and nine months non-parole for drug trafficking in 2016. When he left prison, he was told by fellow inmates he would have little to no hope of gaining employment. Despite this, he persisted, and finally secured employment a few months after leaving prison.  

Anderson – who admits his story is a rare one among ex-prisoners – continued to build his career before co-founding an electrical business. But his recognition of a need for easy-to-access, prison-compliant clothing online led him, in conjunction with Corrections Victoria, to build the social enterprise, Fair Threads. 

Fair Threads not only provides ex-inmates with transitional employment, but its mentoring provides ongoing support and links to counselling and drug and alcohol services.  

“What a lot of people don’t realise … is that if you do secure employment and you are able to pay the bills – a big part of coming back into society is loneliness. You do need to segregate yourself from a lot of your previous support networks or social circles. It becomes quite isolating and extremely mentally taxing and you need to engage with a lot more support, probably even more so than when you were addressing your offending behaviour.” 

While there is a lot of scope for employment opportunities for former-inmates, Anderson says having the right conversations with people with “lived experience” is a crucial part of making an arrangement work.  

“A lot of organisations are a lot closer to be able to help people with their transitional employment pathways, and you can find out how close you are to it by just starting a conversation with somebody, such as myself, who has been there before,” Anderson says.  

“Just start the conversation and see where it leads, because there are often times where there is some low-hanging fruit where you can make some social change.”