When the fourth season of Netflix’s prison drama Orange Is the New Black (OITNB) came online last month, a whopping 6.7 million viewersin the US tuned in to see (spoiler alert!) what the inmates would do with their newfound freedom. But once the joy of frolicking around in a lake was over, the reality started to set in: what do offenders do when they get out?
In Australia, it’s the role of state government corrective services to help the 2,876 female prisoners transition to life on the outside. Each state offers prison employment programs to skill up offenders while they’re inside, as well as a voluntary re-entry link program to help them improve life skills, find somewhere to live and link up with family, community support services and job network providers once released.
But getting a job on the outside is easier said than done, and there are surprisingly few companies that publicly acknowledge that they hire ex-offenders.
“The stigma of working with ex-offenders is still the main barrier to getting more companies to hire them”, says Jade Lewis, founder and chief executive of theYellow Ribbon Project, a West Australian charity inspired by the Singaporean organisation of the same name.
“Many companies may want to give back, but if they go and do it without any training, they [could] have a bad experience and feel burnt. And then it’s that negative experience that they carry with them and pass on to others.”
As such, the Yellow Ribbon Project followed the example set by its Asian namesakewith programs to help female ex-offenders from WA’s Bandyup women’s prison and Banksia Hill detention centre find, integrate, and keep jobs mainly in aged care, construction and community services.
This is largely done through the charity’s government-funded mentoring program which provides female ex-offenders with volunteer mentors straight from the prison gates, as well as training to companies that seek to employ these women, with support up to a year after that.
“We have an eight-hour training package for people who want to help or employ these women, and it brings down barriers to reintegration”, says Lewis.
“By painting a picture of what these women have faced in their lives and what obstacles they are going through now, it helps the employer understand … and puts them in a more educated position to deal with them.
“Equally the women are asked to sign a code of conduct, so they know what’s expected of them. Just by having the organisation know their background it helps, as there is no need for the women to feel any shame.”
Lewis notes that the biggest incentive for businesses is that the Yellow Ribbon Project mentors are on hand to deal with any incidents that may crop up. It’s a benefit that attractedSouthside Care, an aged care and disability service provider in Perth, to the program.
Monique Benjamin, services manager at Southside Care, says: “If the person is willing to get their life back on track, we want to be there to make it happen and be part of that journey. But we do have to be selective with who we take on, for example we absolutely wouldn’t take on anyone with a history of violence against older people.”
Benjamin adds that after a bad experience with a rehabilitated drug addict, the company would be wary of taking on anyone with a drug abuse history. She explains: “I think what went wrong with that girl is that there was no support or accountability from the drug rehab charity, and she eventually relapsed. With the Yellow Ribbon Project, mentors come in once a week to check in and highlight to us any problems that the girl might be having so we can be sensitive to that, and vice-versa. I can contact them at any time if something goes wrong and they deal with it.”
Southside Care has so far employed four female ex-offenders on a part-time basis through the mentoring program, and says that three of the four were “very successful”, with one leaving the program to deal with mental health problems.
“The women we have work really hard and it’s a pleasure to see how they take off once given the opportunity. But I would definitely suggest that any businesses doing this work with a program, like this mentoring program, to ensure that there is that level of accountability.”
The project seems to be working. Self-billed as the “the only evidence-based female mentoring program for ex-offenders in WA, if not Australia”, the system has so far had an 89.7% success rate of keeping female ex-offenders out of prison and has found jobs for 81% of its participants (either paid or voluntary). Lewis estimates that in total, there have been over 1,000 women through the Yellow Ribbon Project’s programs.
However the future of the program is uncertain. Following state government reforms of corrective services, the Yellow Ribbon Project is currently in talks with the state government about the continuation of the program. It needs around $1m a year for the next five years.
“It might sound like a lot but by making these women independent and self-reliant and by reducing the amount of people returning to prison, we save the government a lot of money in the long run”, says Lewis. (Indeed, according to the Productivity Commission’s report on government services in 2015, it costs $292 a day to keep a prisoner in jail, totalling more than $106,000 a year.)
She adds that with “the right funding” the model could be replicated across other states, and there are already plans to potentially bring a similar program to female ex-offenders in Victoria.
“The big key to having these women integrate into society is to have people to walk out the journey with them”, says Lewis. “As well as clinical and therapeutic support, they also just need a simple friend … as we all do.”