Community Impact

‘I finally feel fulfilled’: the ex-offenders who turned to fashion

Inside Out takes ex-offenders through a crash course in the business of fashion, design and marketing.

Most of us would like to think we believe in second chances, and do not hold the mistakes of someone’s past against them. But what if that mistake ended up putting them in prison?

Polling suggests a majority of people and businesses support the idea of rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Yet the experiences of many ex-offenders speak otherwise.

A year after release, only 17% are in salaried employment, with somewhat more (28%) having had any kind of paid work in that period.

This has a profound effect on their lives, not least because unemployment is strongly associated with reoffending – recidivism rates are over twice as high for people who do not enter employment after release than those who do. It can be part of a vicious cycle.

Social enterprise Inside Out is attempting to change this.

It’s an intensive programme designed to take a group of ex-offenders through a crash course in the business of fashion, designing, manufacturing, marketing and eventually selling a range of products including T-shirts, caps and hoodies.

Inside Out is the brainchild of TV journalist Greg McKenzie and social entrepreneur Zack Fortag, who first started working on the idea after a chance meeting online in 2019.

“Young people love fashion and so many of the people we initially talked to inside wanted their own fashion brand. But we also chose fashion because of the skills you get with it – personal skills, business skills, sales, budgeting, design, it’s all there.”

The pair also worked with sponsors LinkedIn to give the eight participants training in public speaking and CV writing, even providing a professional photographer so they’d have proper headshots – the little details that can have an outsized impact on a person’s employability, and that many former offenders lack.

It all culminated in a special pop-up store that was open for a few weeks in London’s Westfield Stratford in April, where the team’s clothes went on sale to the general public, and which Zack and Greg hope to replicate in subsequent years.

Belong visited the store to hear some of the participants’ stories (and pick up a T-shirt while we were there).

Shaquiel and Tiko

Shaquiel Campous, now 27, served time when he was 15 years old. He had already launched his own clothing brand, Integrity LDN, a few months previously but through Inside Out learned the importance of social media, marketing and finding suppliers: “It’s been amazing, right from the beginning, when we brainstormed to come up with the logo. Everyone put their design in and we had a vote, and mine was picked. It’s going to help me get further, quicker, and it will inspire a lot of people to keep knocking.”

Tiko Tarawali was studying pharmacology at university, when he saw a post about Inside Out on Instagram. After Zack started a conversation, Tiko took the last place and has not looked back. “I’ve never really felt fulfilled in anything I’ve done. Now I’m starting to understand what that feels like.” Tiko had spent four months behind bars, in 2016, while still a teenager, and views the project more as an exercise in self-actualisation than a means to an end.

“I didn’t fit in anywhere before, but it was only when I took the time to explore why I didn’t fit in that things started to happen for me. I knew I wanted to be better and then this opportunity came.”

Like the other Inside Out participants, Tiko is now looking forward to mentoring the next year’s cohort to pay it forward, and also to see where life takes him next. “If I can give back in any way, that’s why I’m here. It’s to help anyone who’s felt out of place to know that the reason is because you’re here to build a new place.”

Working with ex-offenders

Tiko, Shaquiel and the others may have been particularly positive about work at the launch event for their clothing brand, but the feeling of fulfillment and self-worth that comes from employment is something that lasts.

“Employment can make a huge difference to ex-offenders. It can provide stability, routine, a sense of belonging and have a positive impact on an individual’s self-esteem and mental health in general,” says Darren Burns, national recruiter ambassador at Timpson.

‘I’ve never really felt fulfilled in anything I’ve done. Now I’m starting to understand what that feels like’

The shoe repair and key-cutting high street stalwart is one of the small but growing number of employers who are actively seeking out ex-offenders as potential workers, including Tesco, Boots and Virgin.

Darren argues that there is a lot of misunderstanding in other companies about what it’s actually like to work with people who have left prison, not least making the erroneous assumption that they are all dangerous, untrustworthy or have nothing to offer.

Over one in five UK adults, it should be noted, have a criminal conviction – that doesn’t tell you all you need to know about them.

“In the 20 years that Timpsons has been employing ex-offenders, it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. We recruit amazing people with a great deal of life experience and personal resilience, who bring a lot to our business and make it a more interesting place to work,” Darren adds.

For most employees who already work with ex-offenders, he adds, it’s no big deal – if anything, they are protective of their prison-leaver colleagues and will go the extra mile to support them.

The starting point for challenging misconceptions about ex-offenders and setting out to be an inclusive employer is, unsurprisingly, talking to them.

Some are comfortable talking about their pasts, others would rather focus on the future. In either case, Darren suggests arranging a visit to the local prison to find out more.

“As soon as they speak with the men and women in custody, employers realise they are just regular people who have made a bad choice, often for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, they can see that they have a lot to offer and can make great employees,” Darren says. Part of this is that they value their second chance and the trust you’ve put in them.

“Showing trust to the ex-offenders we employ is vital. In fact the first thing we do with our colleagues on day release from prison is to ask them to deposit our banking. Essentially, we hand them a bag containing thousands of pounds and ask them to take it to the local bank,” Darren says.

“By doing this, we send a clear message that we trust our colleagues and focus on what they can achieve rather than what they’ve done. We have never lost any money yet!”

Alongside employers like Timpson and social enterprises like Inside Out, there are various organisations that seek to support people with criminal convictions as they try to move on with their lives and past the stigma that they can face. Social justice charity NACRO has a handy list here, and for employers there are also resources coordinated by the government such as the New Futures Network.

While much more support is needed, it is nonetheless a sign that at least some people are committed to second chances, which is ultimately all that most ex-offenders want – to be able to forge their own paths, unshackled by their pasts.

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