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British business helping women prisoners rebuild lives

Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

As Rita neared the end of a 10-year jail sentence for money laundering, her first thought was getting back her four children - and finding a way to support them.

Enter Shine, an innovative business in northern England that provides job opportunities for female offenders, starting while they are still serving their sentences.

"I needed an income to be able to provide them with a home, but also for my own emotional stability. While I was serving my sentence I couldn't see how I was going to do that," said Rita, not her real name.

During the last 18 months of her sentence Rita, 49, worked part time at Shine, a social enterprise - or business with a mission to do good as well as making a profit - that provides space for corporate events and organises outside catering.

By the time she was released, she had saved enough for a deposit on a rented property and, because she was in regular employment, was able to care for her children.

Creating opportunities

Dawn O'Keefe started Shine a decade ago, seeing it as an opportunity "to do something that would make a difference" after a successful corporate career in the United States.

The business, based in a former school building in a deprived area of the city of Leeds, now has a yearly turnover of £800,000 pounds from catering and hiring space for conferences and other events.

It takes women on while they are still serving their sentences, giving them the chance to try out in sales, receptionist and food delivery roles, which are initially voluntary but can lead to paid employment.

"Shine is a business that creates a revenue to allow us to... create opportunities for those that don't normally get them," O'Keefe told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Fewer than one in 10 women prisoners have a job to go to on release, according to the Prison Reform Trust, a charity that campaigns for a just penal system in Britain.

Jenny Earle, who heads the Trust's programme to reduce women's imprisonment, said children whose mothers went to jail often went to live with relatives, moving home and school. In some cases children end up in care.

She said jobs were "absolutely fundamental" to women making a fresh start because they help "build confidence and self esteem as well as providing you with a means to support your children."

More than 17,000 children are separated from their jailed mothers each year, according to Howard League for Penal Reform, a charity, and research shows they are twice as likely to suffer poor mental health.

Shine is one of a number of social enterprises in Britain that provide job opportunities to prisoners, from The Clink, a working restaurant inside a prison, to The Good Loaf, which trains women to be bakers.

Britain is seen as a global leader in the innovative social enterprise sector, with about 70,000 businesses employing nearly 1 million people last year, according to membership body Social Enterprise UK, up from 55,000 businesses in 2007.

Confidence

O'Keefe said the company had to take potential risks to staff and clients into account when hiring, while staff having to be back in the prison at strict times could be challenging.

"Other members of the team who join Shine buy into what we do," she said. "Everyone understands very clearly the link between excellent service and ongoing opportunities for staff."

Mostly though, O'Keefe sees employing female prisoners as a commercial advantage because they are so determined to succeed in their jobs.

For Rita, having a job was an opportunity to take control of her life after having to give up her independence in prison.

She started off serving tea and coffee and is now operations manager - a job that allows her to provide work opportunities to women in the same situation she once found herself in.

"It's not just about the money, it's self-worth, it's your confidence, it's getting you back to where you need to be," said Rita.

"I dread to think where everybody would be if I didn't do the simple things like getting a home and keeping everyone together."

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