As a teen parent, hanging with the wrong crowd, doing the worst kind of things, Peter didn’t have a future. He ended up going straight to jail.
But serving time changed his perspective. Like many, he left prison last year determined to change his ways.
“I look back now and I think, ‘Where did it get that bad that I went that wrong?’” he told The New Daily.
“I had a son and then I went and did certain things and I have a wife that loves me and I hurt her through that period.”
It’s hard to get work with a criminal history
One quarter of Australians have some kind of criminal record. For those like Peter, who have been in jail, getting a job is more than a livelihood – it means a different kind of life.
But it is not easy. Admitting a criminal record is a fast track to rejection. Peter’s face clouds over as he recounts the struggle to find any employer who would even speak to him when he got out.
“It’s hard to get work with a criminal history,” he says.
“Even though you have experience, they look at it and say, ‘Well, do we want this guy or some guy with the same experience with no criminal history?’”
This is where Peter’s employer, global logistics company Toll Group, and other agencies, try to help.
Toll’s Second Step program is designed to help people with a history of addiction or criminal offences find employment opportunities.
The offender must take initiative and contact the company – just as Peter did. He called and called until a position became available.
“I said to myself, ‘I want to get back on track’, and Toll gave me a second chance – not just at work, but at life,” says Peter, who has just welcomed the birth of his second child, a daughter.
Leaving prison is in itself a daunting prospect for most people.
The first issue people face is finding stable housing, accommodating to life on the outside and finding social support either through family or friends or support organisations.
Amanda Wheeler, CEO of OutCare, Perth’s prisoner support organisation, says that people who have served time often need help to deal with the issues that got them there in the first place.
Prisoners tend to come from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and are more likely to have literacy problems compared with the mainstream population. Eighty per cent have some form of substance abuse and 40 per cent are dealing with mental health issues.
“Some people are institutionalised,” Ms Wheeler says.
“Their social and general life skills have not been developed.”
The barriers to employment and the stigma
Sally Matheson, an employment services manager at Wise Employment in Melbourne, says that jobs applicants who admit to a criminal record often put themselves straight on to the rejection pile.
“Many find [that] as soon as they disclose their criminal past, the employer is not interested,” she says.
Bronwyn Naylor, an associate professor at Monash University, says that there are legitimate reasons why employers ask job applicants for criminal record checks up front, but an unfortunate side effect is that people will often self-select themselves out of contention.
“If the media keeps saying that people who have been convicted are all dangerous and scary and should be off the streets, then you can’t blame employers for saying ‘I don’t want to employ them and I don’t want my staff and customers to be exposed to them,’” she says.
Do we need criminal record checks?
Professor Naylor believes that criminal record checks should be targeted to reflect the job itself, as in the children’s services industry.
“The working with children scheme is sensible, because it is targeted,” she explains.
“It says, ‘These jobs need these checks … offences against children or trafficking drugs, assault [and] sexual assault.”
She says that similar policies could be implemented in other industries, such as making sure someone who is going to handle money hasn’t committed fraud.
“If you go round excluding people, why would you blame them for going back to crime?” she asks.
“If they can’t earn a certain wage, why wouldn’t they start dealing drugs to make money or go back on drugs or alcohol?”
The employer and the effect of a job
Ruth Oakden, manager of Toll’s Second Step Program, says that getting ex-prisoners into employment helps break the cycle of crime.
“The kids of offenders are six times more likely to end up in prison themselves,” she says.
“If we get a guy out of prison and into work, his kids are seeing a role model of employment and engagement rather than offending and disengagement. Those kids are more likely to have a better life.”
I look back at my history and I’m not proud of it – but I can look back and say, ‘Look where I was and look where I am now’
Not every Second Stepper works out, but the success stories make the process worthwhile. Ms Oakden cites the example of one Second Stepper, whose son has just graduated from university.
For Peter, finding a job and people he can rely on for support, have given him hope, pride and joy in his life. His son and daughter have a responsible father, and his wife is hopeful.
Unlike many others leaving prison, Peter is breaking the cycle of incarceration, giving his family and his kids a better chance at the future.
“I look back at my history and I’m not proud of it – but I can look back and say, ‘Look where I was and look where I am now’. I am becoming more of a man every day. I’m happy.”