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Industry focus

The New Angels of The North

Businesses Reaching Out to Help Re-Shape the Future Recruitment Landscape for Ex-Offenders “Coming Home”

Sculptor Anthony Gormley’s famous “The Angel of The North” is a powerful symbol of the region’s recognition of its past, present and hope for the future. 

As the 208-tonne, twenty-eight-metre (66ft) oxidised steel statue celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary as Britain’s largest sculpture, the giant structure stands tall and proud as a representative of all the best qualities the north-east has to offer.

From endurance to empathy, The Angel is an iconic emblem whose fifty-four-metre “thrusting and rusting” wingspan (as wide as a jumbo jet) embraces the north-east’s rich industrial heritage and provides a warm welcome to all visitors whether they are natives coming home or commuters passing through.

Built on the site of a former colliery at the intersection of the A1 and A167 road network and the East Coast Main Line, it is viewed by thirty-three million people every year and bears witness to the journey the region has been on and the enduring qualities of its people. 

As a place and a state of mind, the north-east is in transition and the welcoming arms of The Angel were part of Gormley’s aspiration to fill the gap between its coal mining heritage and its post-industrial, information-led future as the region rehabilitates itself in the 21st century. 

As a symbol, the sculpture is rooted in the here and now, refusing to be defined by its darker past. Instead, it is a symbolising landmark of rehabilitation and re-birth.

The Recruitment Junction

Another organisation that shares that onward journey and the desire to redefine the future of the rehabilitated is The Recruitment Junction, an award-winning charity placing people with convictions into sustainable paid employment across the north-east of England.

The objective of the charity is to help those who have committed crimes in their former lives to re-discover a sense of purpose through finding fulfilling work where they can add real value and become role models who drive positive generational impact across their families.

“It is a long road for many people,” said Beverley Brooks, founder and CEO of The Recruitment Junction, a former business owner and senior recruitment manager with over 20 years’ experience in the employment sector. 

After running an international multi-million Euro IT recruitment business in the early noughties, she has spent the last 15 years designing and running ex-offender employability programmes in Newcastle and London. 

Institutionalised and brutalised by a harsh prison system—some of the patrons of The Recruitment Junction are survivors of the Medomsley Detention Centre near Consett which was forced to close after widespread allegations of abuse of more than fifteen-hundred inmates by staff, some of whom have themselves now been jailed— many simply return to civilian life with little or no hope of escaping a vicious cycle of re-offending.

They have little or no life experience other than incarceration and next to nothing in the way of incentives or alternative pathways to “go straight”, which is why 65 per cent of men in prison will have followed in the footsteps of a father who had previously been in jail.

With a wide shortage of accessible accommodation, many leave prison and enter into half-way hostels where they are surrounded by other former offenders where either temptation or desperation often prove too much, despite the well-intentioned efforts of over-stretched probation officers.

So, when they come to The Recruitment Junction, many are at the critical junction where they know that going back to their old lives does not provide a sustainable option for their short, medium, or long-term future or their mental well-being.

“Our starting point is to build up a picture of them so that we can help them,” said Beverley who got involved in the sector after a chance encounter in a London Church after she returned to the UK from Belgium after selling the business.

“It became a discovery of faith for me. I started attending the church because I wanted to have the children christened. They had been born using IVF and I wanted to give thanks for them,” she said.

“When I was there one day there was a lady at the front of the church leading prayers for a young mother called Tanya who was in prison and whose baby was about to be taken away from her. She was in a mother and baby unit and the rules say that after 9 months they can’t keep children in prison. I had a one-year-old and it really struck home and I knew I had to try and do something. The only thing I knew was recruitment.”

Inspired by the hard-hitting 2007 Corston report into women in the criminal justice system, Beverley began volunteering with the charity “Working Chance” which helps women with convictions develop confidence, skills, and self-belief to overcome the barriers to finding jobs and building careers.

Volunteering with Working Chance provided a vital stepping-stone to establishing The Recruitment Junction when Beverley moved to the north-east of England nine years ago.

“I learned that the impediment to finding work was that no-one will give you a chance which means that those individuals do not apply for jobs in the first place and could end up back in the criminal justice system.”

“Hearing people’s stories totally change my view of things—I realised that more needed to be done to provide advocacy for them and give them a voice where previously they had none,” she said.

Now working with employers across the north-east, The Recruitment Junction helps to re-build shattered lives from the ground up and provide jobs and training for a wide range of roles in hospitality, retail, warehousing, and logistics.

Supported by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service, Newcastle City Council as well as fifty other national and regional philanthropic organisations across the region, The Recruitment Junction has also been selected as a partner to the new NBCS (National Business Crime Solution) Foundation CIO which supports the work of a wide range of organisations assisting ex-offenders across the UK. 

Placing People into Sustainable Work

So far, The Recruitment Junction has placed four-hundred people into sustainable work and despite the intensity of the lockdown, predominantly across the hospitality and retail sectors, the charity carried on its vital work.

“COVID did not stop us.” said Beverley.

As a result, between 2021 and July 2023, 72 per cent of placements retained the same job that The Recruitment Junction helped find for them, with only 2 per cent having to return to prison for re-offending. 

The relationship is a partnership where the charity will help the former offender not only write a CV but re-build their lives and make them visible to society again, whether it is through drafting a disclosure letter, re-applying for essential identity documents such as their National Insurance details, helping them find full time employment or training programmes and even providing them with suitable clothing for interviews.

In return, the person who has served their sentence needs to have no more ongoing issues with drugs and alcohol (including treatment for these addictions or opiate replacement programmes), have a fixed address and not have any pending court cases or outstanding warrants against their names.

“The immediate priority needs must have been addressed for us to be able to support them into work—they do need to be clean and sober, and sadly we can’t support anyone who is sofa surfing or homeless—these are baseline requirements which need to be in place before any job. Housing is a major obstacle, with as many as 30 per cent of prison leavers being released homeless.”

It is also a challenge in terms of education as many people who have been in and out of the prison system still struggle with literacy and numeracy which could also be linked to a higher representation of neuro-divergent conditions such as OCD and ADHD.

“We had one older chap, who was an inmate at Medomsley who later became a forklift truck driver, but he struggled with using a PDA tablet in the warehouse. He put it down to what had happened in his life, but in fact he was only diagnosed in his late thirties with dyslexia—whilst in prison—which put a completely different complexion on the situation,” she said.

Second Chances

Here, the charity can help signpost users of the service to other support such as the Shannon Trust which boosts their literacy and confidence. 

The Recruitment Junction has seen a significant uptake across a wide section of manual and semi-skilled occupations, and the construction sector by people who have served sentences. Around a quarter of success stories from the charity also end up in white collar roles including four people the charity itself employed.

“They have become outstanding assets to the charity,” said Beverley.

“It is proof in my strong belief that if we can disrupt the cycle, we can make a real difference and make a taxpayer out of a benefits receiver and there are plenty of businesses willing to help and give people with convictions a fair hearing,” she added.  

Figures from Working Chance reveal that 86 per cent of employers who had previously recruited someone with a conviction reported a good experience. In the last six years, the proportion of employers who would not hire someone with a conviction under any circumstance has reduced significantly, from half of all employers to just over a quarter (50 per cent to 27 per cent).

Furthermore, a staggering 92 per cent of employers in this cohort say that diverse recruitment has enhanced their reputations to the point of helping them to win new business.

The charity has a number of success stories including one who they helped find accommodation after he left a hostel because he did not want to be drawn back into a life of crime.

After serving a sixteen-year sentence for murder, the man—who wished to remain anonymous—who came from a background of alcohol abuse with his mother being dependent on drink and being taken into a care home for alcohol-related dementia, was provided with a second chance by The Recruitment Junction.

“They were brilliant and helped me to put together a CV and proper covering letter, explaining the circumstances surrounding the crime. If it had been left to me, I would have simply blurted it all out. As a result, I got two interviews straight away.”

“They understand where you are coming from, and the interview was open and honest. I now have a job in a kitchen which is so nice, and I have not looked back. It has given me a real sense of purpose without which I would have simply been sitting around the house.”

The man, who spent three-and-a-half years in therapy after his own battle with alcohol as a teenager said his challenges were linked to a lack of confidence.

“At that time, I was emotionally all over the place and things in my life just got out of hand. Now I am in a different place. The help I received from the charity also benefited a lot of other people and the wider community.”

“Employers need to open their eyes and see that there are a lot of talented people in jail and not engaging with them is such a waste.”

But all these chances do not simply happen. Businesses need to be hard-headed as well as soft-hearted when it comes to recruitment from the prison community so that they can help turn lives around. They understand the challenge based upon the deficit in education and opportunity that preceded the incarceration of those who end up on the wrong side of the criminal justice system.

According to data from the Ministry of Justice, two-thirds of prisoners have not been in employment or training prior to imprisonment and almost three-quarters have no paid employment upon release. Meanwhile, regular paid employment is one of the main factors in reducing re-offending. The cost of re-offending on society is estimated at around £18 billion per year. 

Now, several retailers and hospitality providers have invested in the process and risen to the challenge. Businesses such as Greene King, Greggs, Timpson, and Iceland are all examples of organisations willing to provide second chances and help those who have served time to realise their potential.

Iceland

Last year, in line with its “doing it right” philosophy, Iceland Foods kick-started a drive to support prisoners in securing employment when released, thus challenging soaring rates of re-offending. 

As part of this drive, the company employed its first director of rehabilitation, Paul Cowley, to its Charitable Foundation with the explicit role of recruiting ex-offenders to work in Iceland’s stores and warehouses. 

There are few people better qualified for this role than Paul who, as a young man, spent time in HMP Risley after finding himself on the wrong side of the law. After release from prison, he then went on to have a seventeen-year career in the British Army. Upon leaving, he became a personal trainer, managing prestigious health clubs in London, and he then changed career again to become a priest in the Church of England.

In 2005 Paul founded the charity Caring for Ex-Offenders which has helped over two-thousand men and women re-integrate into society and for which he was awarded an MBE in 2016.

Now in his new role he uses his broad experience to work with prisons across the UK to interview men and women and offer them a guaranteed position for roles within Iceland.

The recruitment scheme works in tandem with the Prison Employment Lead (PEL)—a person employed by the government in every prison to develop connections between prisoners and businesses. 

When he joined Iceland in September last year Paul said: “Most people in our prison system are poorly educated and have a bad or non-existent employment record.” 

“This is not always their fault and the cumulative effect upon the families, dependents and their mental health can be life threatening.” 

“This initiative by Iceland Foods will present a prison leaver not only with the hope provided by a job, but the hope of a new life. I’m excited to be working with an innovative team who care about the marginalised and have the practical means to tap into the locked-up potential in our prisons.” 

At the time of the announcement Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland Foods said: “I’m thrilled to welcome Paul on board as director of rehabilitation to help us continue our “doing it right” efforts. Helping give former prisoners meaningful employment is not only helpful to our business but will pass on wider societal benefits that have been proven time and again.” 

Now, almost a year on from his appointment, Loss Prevention Magazine Europe caught up with Paul in between intensive interviews in prisons in Northern Ireland. He explained how the process works.

“The prison service has made a huge step forward, but there is still a long way to go,” he said.

“The PELs do a lot of the heavy lifting for us by setting up the meetings with likely candidates who meet our criteria when we are looking for people to fill our delivery driver or retail assistant roles, for example.”

“I then go into the prison and interview them face-to-face to see if they are going to be successful or not. Either way, they get a letter, so they know. If they are successful, they get this letter six-to-eight weeks before their release date to say they are to be employed in whichever store or warehouse that is close to where they will be located.”

“It is their guarantee of work for those who are ready for work. It is interesting that most people think that they are ready to work, but some are not because they fail to see what they have to deal with when they leave prison,” he said.

This is demonstrated in the success rate of the scheme. Of the one-hundred-and-forty people he has interviewed so far, seventy have been offered roles and thirty are still working in stores, but there has been a 40 per cent rate of loss which is lower than the national average (50 per cent).

One such person is Peter, released from HMP Northumberland earlier this year and with support from The Recruitment Junction, is now employed as a delivery driver at one of Iceland’s north-east stores. 

But not all are as successful as Peter, according to Paul. “Some failed their drug test on probation and had to be re-called to prison, some had complications on release and have not turned up to work—it is very much the nature of the cohort that we are working with.” 

“I wish I did not have to lose anyone because everyone we select deserves a second chance. It is hard because their lives are complex, but as a gatekeeper, the whole process can be extremely frustrating.”

It is still a work in progress and extremely rewarding for all parties when release leads to recruitment and ultimately retention which can result not only in a job, but a sense of purpose and a changed life. 

The road to rehabilitation is paved with angels in the form of those charities and philanthropic organisations willing to offer second chances and redemption rather than the alternative road to perdition. These angels, whether they are of the north, south, east or west help those who have fallen keep on the right and straight road. More businesses need to walk in the shoes of those who still have a long way to go in order to not only ease their journey, but offer a supporting shoulder, hope and, at long last, a warm welcome home.

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