There are very few things more glamorous than international travel to deliver a keynote speech to an influential audience.
However, even with the event being a sell-out, people having to perch in aisles and stand at the back of the room and dedicated translators who were turning my words from Broad Yorkshire to Portuguese, I could not help but be humbled thinking why we were all in that room.
The Prison Insights 2019 conference was organised by Portugal’s Association of the Protection and Assistance of Convicts (APAC) a service that has inspired me and many others around the world with the development of over 50 prisons in Brazil that do not have guards and are entirely and legally run by serving prisoners and volunteers from the community.
It is obvious that Portugal is leading the way on sentencing reform being the first country to abolish the life sentence in the world and in 2001 saw the decriminalisation of drug use which has resulted in a decrease of drug-related imprisonment by 40% and drug-related deaths by 80%. However, like most countries faced with low unemployment (6.1% at the time of writing this), Portugal is now looking at improving the employment prospects of those leaving prison and facing criminal convictions, something my organisation, Offploy, has been specialising in the last three years. We know that employment reduces reoffending which makes our communities safer and this is why we were all in that room on Wednesday 30th October 2019.
At the conference, I shared my story and journey through the prison system but I also shared what has worked for our candidates when securing them sustainable employment.
“There are two barriers to people with criminal convictions securing employment. One is the public perceptions and perceived risk to employers. The other is the candidate’s perception of themselves, thinking they are not ‘good enough’ for a stable job.”
The greatest argument I can offer to employers is that I would obviously choose a candidate who has been through depression, despair, addiction, imprisonment, punishment and has been able to brush themselves off, get the right support, put on a shirt and turn up to an interview to be a part of my company. That resilience and determination are exactly the type of skills I would be looking for in future colleagues. The fact that people with convictions are often loyal and grateful for the opportunity is just an added bonus.
For the candidate, it is empowering to feel a part of a society, to pay taxes, to have routine and to have pride. People are less likely to take from a community they are a part of, welcomed and accepted in.
“Having Jacob's life story and perspective on employment in Portugal at our event, was for us a mind-blowing and inspiring opportunity. The uses of real-life cases and data gathered by Offploy that can now be used by Portugal and its companies to further develop the way we welcome back people with criminal records. Personally, I have learned so much from Jacob and Offploy that our aim is to spread their methodology across Portugal and Europe.” Duarte Fonseca, Director Executivo, APAC Portugal.
The Prison Insights Conference 2019 showed just how willing Portugal is to truly reform its approach to making society safer by employing people with criminal convictions. The conference saw speakers from Delta Coffee, The Caixa Bank Foundation, The Government, and The Department for Justice.
It was not about if we should support prisoners and prison leavers to gain meaningful employment but instead how we will do it.
With the support of APAC Portugal, I am confident that Portugal will once more lead the way on criminal justice reform, this time not on sentencing but what to do once the members of their society have served their punishment.