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When giving something back helps firms thrive

Linda Stewart talks to Johnny McKim, who runs a social enterprise at Hydebank Wood, and Gareth Kirk of Belfast leisure centre operator at GLL


Johnny McKim with mugs produced through the Quest scheme

Johnny McKim with mugs produced through the Quest scheme

@Press Eye/Darren Kidd

Johnny McKim with mugs produced through the Quest scheme

Johnny McKim (30) always thought he would be a teacher when he was growing up, but he ended up inside.

Not as a prisoner, however, but as the project manager of a ground-breaking social enterprise that operates behind the heavily guarded walls of Hydebank Wood College in south Belfast.

Mugshots is a social enterprise that produces printed and promotional materials as part of employability training programme Quest, an Advantage project funded by the Big Lottery Fund.

Johnny estimates that for offenders who go through the one-year scheme, the typical re-offending rate for those getting out of prison is reduced from about 70% to 17% - an incredible success rate.

The south Belfast man trained as a youth worker, but his direction changed when he went on a one-year placement to Australia, where he worked in a residential care centre for at-risk young people whose parents couldn't look after them because of their extreme behaviour.

"It led me into the position I am in now as I have experience of working in a similar facility," Johnny says.

"Our day-to-day work is to deliver employability training to young men who are currently in custody and that is facilitated through our social enterprise called Mugshots. They receive employability training and then they work in Mugshots, which is a printing and promotional items business run as a social enterprise.

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"The money made by the business is invested into the business and the young people who we work with."

Some of the money goes into a bursary, which the young men on the course can apply to after they are released.

"They can apply for any items that can reduce the risk of reoffending by getting them into employment, education training or self-employment," Johnny says.

"It helps the guys to start up businesses, helps them to get work wear. For one, it helped with driving lessons, or helped to get emergency accommodation and support for some of the guys, or course tuition fees."

There are 24 places on the course and its waiting list is always busy. "We don't turn anyone away. We take any guys, no matter what their crimes may be," Johnny says.

The course includes 11 modules on employability, helping the participants learn what it's like to find work and become a more productive member of society.

"It's basic things that all we all take for granted - problem-solving, working as part of a team, planning and organising yourselves - but the main thing we work on is the attitude," Johnny explains.

"A lot of these guys have never had any experience of being within a workplace and, for many, their parents have never been in a workplace.

"We treat it as a workplace from day one - they show up on time, they take their breaks when breaks are scheduled, they work as a team.

"Their behaviour and especially language is kept in check - there is a no-swearing rule in our office.

"It's a symbol - it's not just swearing, it's about having respect for yourself and people around you.

"For a lot of them that is the first time someone has confronted them about that.

"As soon as the guys make the connection that this is about respecting yourselves, there are no issues there. We respect them and we expect respect in return."

Johnny says he has worked with young men aged 19 who have been in prison eight or nine times.

"The figures are frightening. The reoffending rate in Hydebank is around 70% among young men getting out of custody who are back within a year.

"There's something drastically wrong in our view," he adds.

"But of the 30 guys who came through our programme, our forward tracking suggests we have reduced the reoffending rate to 17%.

"Having work and having a meaningful, positive thing to do when you're out of prison is a factor in not going back to prison.

"Some have gone into work on release, some have gone into education and training and some have even launched their own businesses.

"Over five years, eight in total have gone on to start their own business. There's one guy who set up a barber's, a couple of mechanics and one who set up a building maintenance company.

"These are young guys who, traditionally, that would never have crossed their mind. They wouldn't have had the belief in themselves to do something like that.

"Starting your own business is a really good option when you come out of prison as you're not relying on someone to give you a break. It's all down to commitment.

"But the main reason we do this is the prevention of more victims of crime."

The business also gives back to the community, with the participants choosing a project to work on each year, including helping people who have been victims of crime in the past.

The next stage is to open a workshop in Carrickfergus at the end of September, similar to the one in Hydebank.

"The first three months are very difficult for guys when they are released, especially when they have tight conditions of release, so having something to engage in is very important to them," Johnny says.

The workshop will be open to anyone released from custody, offering a three-month work placement with help to decide the next step.

"The cost of a custodial place is £68,000 a year and, if two guys don't go back to prison, this programme has paid for itself," Johnny says.

  • For more information, visit the enterprise's website at www.mugshotsprint.com.