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The Kiwi firms giving offenders a second chance with a real job

Bridgeman Concrete operations manager Tim Walters, left, and driver Shaan Henry: “Their work ethic sets them apart.” Photo/Adrian Malloch

The unemployment rate is at a nine-year low, and employers are turning to an unlikely source of labour for hard-to-fill vacancies: our prisons. 

The job ads stopped working about two years ago, says Bridgeman Concrete operations manager Tim Walters. He had tried everything to find truck drivers, “throwing money away” on advertising, both online and in local newspapers. He’d put up signs at the front gate and offered a bonus to existing staff who brought in new workers.

The workload had never been greater, but some of his trucks were standing idle in the yard for want of someone to drive them. So, when he heard last year that the Corrections Department was trying to find work for former prison inmates, Walters had nothing to lose.

Unlike many employers, he takes a forgiving attitude to a criminal past. He doesn’t seek police checks on workers and considers past convictions practically irrelevant. “It’s not like they’re going to pinch concrete,” he says.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Twelve months after signing up to the Corrections scheme, Walters has hired four former offenders who work from the company’s base in South Auckland – in Crooks Rd, no less – and says they’re some of the best staff on his books. They’re heavily vetted already, drug-free and keen to prove themselves.

“It’s these guys’ work ethic that sets them apart,” the happy boss says. “They’re never late for work, they are always keen to do what you want them to do, they’re very friendly and they fit in with the team incredibly well. It’s almost like they’ve been part of the family from day one.”

When heavily tattooed Shaan Henry arrived for his job interview, it was obvious why he was struggling to get off the dole: he’d spent eight of the previous 16 years behind bars for crimes ranging from aggravated assaults on police to dealing methamphetamine. To Walters, however, Henry’s past was just that. “He’s been through the system and served his time. The important thing is he wants to make a fresh start.”

At 45, Henry was trapped in a frustrating cycle: he needed more than $1000 to do the courses necessary to earn a heavy vehicle licence, but he couldn’t afford that unless he got a job, and he couldn’t get a job because he had no licence. “He was in a hole,” says Walters. “He was very nervous, almost withdrawn into himself; there was no eye contact at all. He was desperate for a chance.”

Walters, right, with Henry. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Walters told Work and Income he’d employ Henry once he had his licence, an assurance the agency needed before it would advance Henry the money for the requisite driver training.

The job came just in time for Henry, who was raised in a dysfunctional Waikato home where drugs, alcohol and violence were parts of daily life and had been in and out trouble with police from the age of 15. “If I hadn’t got this job,” he says, “I could easily have slipped back into my old ways. I was on the edge.”

After his release in 2016, he spent six months in residential rehab before trying to find work. “I tried for about 15 jobs, but doors were just getting shut on me. I had a few interviews, but as soon as they knew I had a record, they swept me under the carpet.”

A year on, Henry is working up to 60 hours a week for $24 an hour, earning time-and-a-half after 50 hours, meaning he’s taking home between $1000 and $1100. He is saving to travel, if his convictions allow it, to Australia and Europe. He is determined not to go back inside and has developed a steely self-control where once he might have been hot-headed and violent.

Walters recounts the time a courier driver swooped in behind Henry in the company’s yard and gave him the fingers. “I could name three or four who would literally have had a go and tried to drag him out of the car, but [Henry] said he parked, counted to 10 and let it go. He said, ‘I’m not going back inside, boss; I don’t want to jeopardise what I have with something stupid.’”

Fresh starts

Walters is one of dozens of employers who now make Corrections their first stop when they’re looking for workers. With its $1.2 million pilot programme, This Way to Work, launched in October 2016, the department has effectively set up an offender recruitment service.

Probation officers dealing with released prisoners have always tried to help their clients find work, but it’s been an ad hoc process. The scheme’s eight offender recruitment consultants (ORCs) have since found jobs for nearly 900 people who might once have seemed unemployable. About 40% have been placed directly from prison.

Offenders with convictions for violence and sex crimes are by far the biggest group of those placed in jobs under the pilot scheme, says Corrections’ director of offender employment and reintegration, Stephen Cunningham. He says almost 160 employers have signed memoranda of understanding to say they’ll work with local probation offices and prisons when they recruit staff. Dozens of other businesses are supporting the scheme informally.

For each ex-offender placed, Corrections offers employers a $1500 package to pay for things such as tools, clothing, top-up training courses and licence fees, but only about a quarter of the budget has been used; companies are often happy to foot that bill themselves.

Cunningham says it’s too soon to measure whether the programme is reducing reoffending rates, “but we do know that having a job is part of reducing recidivism”. For the inmates, a job is as much about restoring their mana as reducing their risk of reoffending.

Stephen Hemara, left, with Karl Bethell: “Employers get full disclosure.” Photo/Rebekah Robinson

Talent pool

More than 8000 people a year are released from prison – nearly 2000 of them from sentences of two years or more – so there is a large, seemingly endless pool of people to place, but Corrections’ northern region manager of offender education and employment, Karl Bethell, says it’s a rewarding task.

“How can you not be happy coming to work and getting these people out of the trouble they’ve been in and getting them into full-time employment? Most of these guys have been on the dole and now they’re paying tax. It’s a win-win.”

Corrections doesn’t attempt to place former offenders in, for example, schools or rest homes, where they might come into contact with young or vulnerable people. Likewise, it probably wouldn’t place people with fraud or shoplifting offences in jobs where they would have to handle money. But Bethell says appropriate placements depend on what crimes have been committed and the steps an offender has taken to rehabilitate himself or herself. Every employer gets full disclosure of an offender’s past. “We wouldn’t put them forward for any job that’s likely to put their rehabilitation or the community at risk.”

Getting work-ready

Between 15 and 20 people a week are referred to the northern service, but only half of those are deemed to be work-ready. Corrections goes into prisons three months before potential clients are released to look at what extra work needs to be done to prepare them for the job market.

“Often their saying they’re work-ready and their being work-ready are quite different,” says Bethell. Many prisoners don’t have a driver licence, much less a car; some have nowhere to live on release. Corrections and the penal-reform and prisoner-aid group the Howard League run regular sessions for driver-licence training. Bethell says many offenders haven’t got a licence because they lack the literacy to sit the test, so they drive without one and get into more trouble, even fleeing from police, as fines mount.

The department wants to expand its employer base, especially for jobs in factories, retail, logistics, administration and hospitality.

Corrections community education and employment officer Stephen Hemara, a former Waitakere probation officer, says that district was the first to dedicate staff to finding work for its clients. Today, he works with the hardest-to-place offenders, often those with a history of violence or sex crimes.

The country’s 4.5% unemployment rate is the lowest since December 2008, and employers are finding it difficult to recruit good people, he says. “And recruitment agencies charge for their services. [Employers] can come to Corrections, get full disclosure, understand there is a support mechanism in place, and they’ll be treated with respect – we treat the employers like gold.”

Construction and infrastructure companies are the biggest employers of Corrections clients. “They will take as many people as we can provide. Anyone from a hammerhand up to a carpenter is going to get a job. So are skilled machinery operators and anyone with a heavy truck licence.”

Belinda Ritchie, centre, is planning a career path in the company for cleaners Tania Binsted, left, and Karen Reddy. Photo/Rebekah Robinson

Employers aren’t exploiting the programme for cheap labour, says Hemara. “I avoid minimum-wage [jobs], although in some instances we need to do it. Everything needs to be weighed up. If they’ve been in prison for an extended period and they haven’t got a work history, then we may talk about it. But we put a lot of finances into training and we expect them to be paid appropriately for their skills.”

Every time an offender lands full-time work, he says, the employer is doing the community a favour. “That’s how I sell the child-sex offenders and the high-risk guys. I say we all have choices. We can leave them at home doing nothing and going back to their old ways. Or we give them an opportunity. Most of our guys only need one chance and they’ll prove themselves to the max.”

Sex offenders are harder to place, but one of Hemara’s success stories is a former IT worker – we’ll call him Simon – who served more than two years of a five-year sentence for a sexual assault. For two years after he was released in 2013, he tried to find work by himself.

“I’d worked for a big retail chain,” Simon says, “and my job skills were highly sought after and not that common. I went for hundreds of jobs over two years. I was interviewed about 30 times and got to the final list eight times. But that was when you told them if you had a conviction or not. As soon as I told them, you could see their faces drop. I offered to work for free on a trial basis, but got absolutely no takers – no one was willing to give me a foot in the door.”

He says he avoided asking Corrections for help for as long as he could “because the jobs there are blue collars and I thought I could be of better use to the workforce doing what I’d been doing”.

Finally, he asked his probation officer to assist, and Hemara put him through an occupational health and safety course, which helped him get a job with a road crew operating a stop-go sign. Within 12 months, he was supervising the crew. “He got to supervisor status faster than anyone else I know, because he’s very intelligent,” says Hemara.

Tania Binsted. Photo/Rebekah Robinson

When he realised he could go no further in that role, Simon again sought Hemara’s help and, a year ago, landed a job as a labourer with a building company. “I was chatting to the manager about my skills and he said, ‘We might try you in the office.’ Eight months later, he’s a data analyst earning $23 an hour and his boss describes him as “a gem”.

Simon has a message for employers. “Every man you hire helps a whole family out of a vicious cycle. Yes, it requires wrap-around support, a gentle introduction to a whole new world, a guide to help them navigate the complexities of the corporate world wrapped in paperwork. They are used to a world of physicality and brutality.”

At 33, he says he can’t see himself leaving. “I expect this job to be my last one. They gave me a chance, so I’m happy to support them for as long as I can.”

Annette De Wet, resource manager for North Shore construction company ICB, which builds retaining walls, has employed 12 former offenders through Corrections since early last year. Nine continue to work there.

She says ICB was “desperate to get labourers” and she approached contacts in Corrections for help, but admits there was initially some resistance from management.

“It’s that old thing: we don’t want criminals. What have they been convicted for? That sort of thing. Violent offenders are just a no-no for us, but we’ve really gone on merit. They’re just normal people, just like anyone else. The only difference is they’ve got history, but we believe in second chances. Everyone makes a mistake, and we know they’re up against it.”

De Wet says it’s healthy for employers to be nervous, but she’s found the workers to be “incredibly loyal”.

“That loyalty is not something you get any more. They will do everything and anything – whatever we ask them to do they will do. They are reliable, they turn up, they go beyond what is required.”

Belinda Ritchie. Photo/Rebekah Robinson

When things go wrong

Corrections supports employers if things go wrong, too. One 17-year-old employee started living on the street after he was kicked out of home. “He just disappeared,” De Wet says. “We couldn’t contact him and didn’t know where he was. We thought he’d abandoned the job. I arrived at work one morning last winter and he was waiting for me on the doorstep, wet, bedraggled and thin. I contacted Stephen [Hemara], who organised a place for him to stay. He was in such a bad state. But he had enough trust to come to me to ask for help, even though he didn’t return to work.”

Across town in Ranui, West Auckland, Ritchies Transport operations manager Belinda Ritchie sits in a conference room with two of her newest recruits hired through Corrections, cleaners Karen Reddy and Tania Binsted. Reddy, 44, served 17 months in jail for an ACC fraud, and Binsted, 33, received a community-work term for assaults on her three children, to whom she’s now allowed only supervised access.

Office administration and cleaning jobs aren’t hard to fill, says Ritchie, but her brother, managing director Andrew Ritchie, contacted Corrections because he wanted to help. “We are doing this as a public service. We say they’ve done their time, so give them a second chance,” she says.

The women are hard workers, helpful and “very, very loyal”, their boss says, and she’s keen to plan a career path within the company for them. “You don’t just say, ‘That’s it; you’re a cleaner and you’re going to be one for years to come.’”

Reddy says when she went to prison, her goal was to come home with positives. “I can’t change that I went to prison. What I can change is the impact it has on my family.” While inside, she earned qualifications in retail and the logistics of distribution, got a forklift licence, and took leadership courses and a rehabilitation programme on triggers for offending. She originally found a job at The Warehouse in South Auckland through Corrections, before moving to Ritchies because it was closer to where she lived.

Karen Reddy. Photo/Rebekah Robinson

Binsted says it took her more than a year to get a job. “I was pulling my hair out being at home every day. I went for other jobs and didn’t get them.” She says she was told she wasn’t qualified. “But people don’t want someone working for them who’s had assault charges. I thought it might never happen for me.”

She’s now enjoying the job so much, “I’m quicker to leave the house in the morning than I am wanting to go home. I’m so thankful to Belinda for giving me this chance. I’m thriving every day. I’ve lost weight, and it keeps my mind occupied. It takes my mind off being upset about [not seeing] my children.”

Both women are hoping their jobs will help them find new places to live. Both are staying with family members and want to move to their own place. “People don’t want to take on someone with a criminal record, a bad credit rating or young children.”

Although the bulk of the jobs on offer through Corrections are, like these roles, unskilled or semi-skilled, there are also some at the other end of the scale. “Jay”, a young Kaikohe offender, has been given the opportunity to join the University of Canterbury’s rocketry project under research leader Chris Hann.

Hann says Corrections contacted him in November 2016 about the young man, who wanted to work in the rocket industry. Using his research contacts in Northland, Hann involved him in the rocket science course at Mangakahia Area School, inland from Whangarei, and a series of rocket launches at a nearby Whatitiri farm last year. Corrections has found a tutor, who is volunteering his own time to help Jay get the NCEA credits necessary to enrol in an engineering degree and join the research group as an undergraduate.

“His criminal convictions were very minimal, but he has made a commitment to overcome the risk of reoffending and is determined to realise his dream. He’s using the rocketry project to make a long-lasting, very positive change to his life.”

Hann says once Jay is enrolled at the University of Canterbury, he’ll be trained in high-powered rocketry. “He has great practical experience, including fixing cellphones and cars, and picks up new skills fast.” Jay’s Māori heritage is also an advantage, Hann says, because Māori and Pacific people are under-represented in engineering. “I hope the project will unlock his potential”.

Chris Turney and Nivlesh Harakh. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Happy on minimum wage

At engineering company Ergo Consulting in Newmarket in Auckland, 23-year-old Nivlesh Harakh is on the minimum wage as a trainee computer-assisted design (CAD) draughtsman, but he couldn’t be happier.

Well groomed and snappily dressed in trousers and a smart checked shirt, a leather belt cinched tightly at his waist, he looks every inch the young man destined for big things. Then he lifts his trouser cuff to reveal the monitored electronic bracelet around his ankle that will alert Corrections if he’s not at work or home on time.

Harakh was sentenced to eight months’ home detention for having sex with an underage girl he met at a party. Before that, he’d racked up a couple of drink-drive convictions and had lost his licence. “I’d never be home and I would pretty much drink every day. I was labouring for under-the-table wages.”

Being forced to live at home with his mum was “pretty life-changing”, he says. “It gave me time to sort myself out and think about what I’d been doing. I always wanted to end up in a dress shirt and tie, but I never thought I would …”

Corrections referred him to Ergo boss Chris Turney, who had long wanted to give a former offender a second chance but had struggled to do so. “I’d contacted the Salvation Army, independent church groups and a friend of mine in probation. The prison service got us a candidate who didn’t want to be there, and it didn’t work out.”

He interviewed one other candidate when he took on Harakh and says Harakh won the job because “he wanted it and he was the more straightforward”.


Chris Turney and Nivlesh Harakh. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Turney says he would struggle to take on a “violent rapist”. “But I say everyone in prison, our society made: if we made the Edmund Hillarys and Richie McCaws, we also made the rapists and murderers. They are part of us. We either lock them up forever or rehabilitate them into society.”

So far, Harakh has been working and learning well, although he did fail to turn up the day after his birthday after only two weeks in the job, when he got to bed late and woke at 2pm the next day to find his phone battery was flat and a mate had borrowed his charger. It wasn’t a drug- or alcohol-induced sleep-in, either: it’s a condition of his sentence that he can’t drink or take drugs, and all staffers at Ergo undergo random drug testing.

“His mother gave him a telling-off and he’s been fine since,” says Turney. “I think we are willing to cut him a bit of slack. If we can get him through the first year, he works regularly, he doesn’t stuff up too much and he does a reasonable job, I’d call that a success.”

Turney says the beauty of Harakh’s job is that it requires no entry qualifications, but within five years, CAD draughtsmen could be earning $80,000.

“I don’t see why you wouldn’t do it,” he says of employers giving offenders a chance. “I have an intern who’s in engineering. She’s the daughter of a friend of mine. Another person I employed is the son of a friend of mine. If you come from the leafy suburbs, we look after each other’s kids, and I think we should just step outside of our zone.

“My father was a successful businessman. All my brothers and sisters have degrees. I went to a private school. I went to university when it was free. It was all laid on for me, but really, I’ve only done what my father’s done. If my father and my uncle were drug dealers and on benefits, I would be, too. It’s just the luck of where you’re born.”

This article was first published in the March 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.