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We offer women ex-offenders a working chance

Jocelyn Hillman tells Claire Brine why she is helping women with convictions find jobs

We never judge women for the crimes they have committed

‘WOMEN prisoners aren’t the problem,’ says Jocelyn Hillman who, in 2009, founded Working Chance, a recruitment consultancy for women with convictions. ‘Employers are the problem because they are prejudiced towards people with convictions.’

Working Chance began when Jocelyn started cold-calling businesses, trying to get them to rethink their attitude towards hiring ex-offenders.

‘Many employers think it would be easier to hire someone other than a prisoner,’ says Jocelyn, ‘but so many of the ex-offenders I meet have talents and skills. These women are creative and entrepreneurial. And they need jobs.’

So far, Working Chance has helped to secure more than 1,350 work placements for women ex-offenders seeking employment. Its candidates have found jobs with companies such as Virgin Trains, Pret a Manger and Transport for London.

‘We never judge women for the crimes they have committed,’ says Jocelyn. ‘Six months before they are due for release, we meet them in prison and they register with us. When they get out, they come to see us and we ask them what they want to do. After we help them complete their CV, we try to find employers that match with their skills. It works because we know what our employers are looking for and we know our candidates.’

Jocelyn explains why she set up an organisation supporting women ex-offenders.

‘I used to run a charity called Dress for Success, where wealthy women donated their clothes and then I would give them to poorer women. I had so many clothes and didn’t know what to do with them all.

‘I rang HMP Holloway and asked the governor if the prison could use them. He invited me in and we set up a shop where the women could buy clothes for 50p.

‘He then talked me into leading some workshops for the women exploring how they could get a job. When I met the women, they said: “No one will ever hire us. We’ve got criminal records.” I felt it was such

a waste of human life and potential.

‘If women can’t get work on leaving prison, often they end up committing crimes again because society has given them no other option. Either they end up in poverty or they feel that life is easier back behind bars. It’s a vicious cycle.’

Jocelyn says that gender also plays a role in the prison system and the opportunities – or lack of – afforded to women.

‘When it comes to prisons, women are always the afterthought,’ she says. ‘Men are the focus. The criminal justice system was set up by men, for men. Society is much more punitive towards women, because they are meant to be “perfect”.

‘The training courses offered to women in prison are largely to do with hairdressing and beauty – which are such stereotypes. Prisons like to pigeonhole women. They think they all have mental health problems or are victims – and that’s not true.

‘The reality is, women ex-offenders are hard-working and resilient. They make good job candidates – because if you can make it through the criminal justice system, you can make it through anything.’

While many prisons focus on providing training courses for offenders, and employers concern themselves with looking at qualifications, Jocelyn argues that perhaps they should look at candidates from another angle: their work ethic.

‘Prisons are obsessed with NVQs and accredited courses,’ she says. ‘Of course, if you want to be a brain surgeon, then you need qualifications. But if you want to work at Pret a Manger or Virgin Trains, what do you need? A good work ethic. The employer wants to know the woman is going to show up, smile and do the job. If a worker needs training, the employer will provide it.’

A large number of Working Chance clients are also mothers. Jocelyn points out that helping them to find work not only builds their confidence, but also helps their children and wider society.

‘It costs £45,000 a year to keep a woman in prison,’ she explains. ‘If that woman has children who need to go into care, then that’s another cost. The money saved by getting women out of prison and into work is phenomenal.

‘Our candidates also tell us that when they are in work, their kids are happier and do better at school. They know their mum has a job and can hold her head up high. They start to think: “If Mum is going to work, I might go to school and work hard as well.”

‘It’s so important to get women ex-offenders into work because what good does it do anybody to keep them isolated? To say that a woman can never work again because she has been to prison makes no sense.’

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