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The big house

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A prison sentence early in life can dash the hopes of a would-be entrepreneur. Or it can fuel them. In the youth unit at Port Phillip Prison, rock bottom gives way to the bottom line as teenaged inmates become CEOs. Jodie O’Keeffe clears security to find out what it takes to build a business behind bars.

Port Phillip Prison looms large and dark on the horizon. A flat and arid industrial wasteland, it seems this unremarkable part of Melbourne’s west was tailor-made for a maximum security prison. The grey stone walls, topped with barbed wire, are visible for miles.

Behind the walls, through layers of security checks, doors and guards, two small interview rooms in the Alexander South Youth Unit have been transformed into a manufacturing ‘sweatshop’. In one, a manual screen-printing machine is being worked overtime by three inmates. They carefully feed white t-shirts onto the platen, and then use a squeegee to force black ink through the stencil. Two words appear, in Gothic lettering crossed by barbed wire: ‘Hard Yards’.

In the next room, hundreds of printed t-shirts are hanging on clothes racks, mop handles, broom handles and anything else that will support a coat hanger. After drying for 24 hours, the t-shirts are ironed, subjected to quality inspection and then packaged, ready for sale. Demand is high and business is booming.

THE POINT OF NO RETURN

Photography: Steven Pam

Port Phillip Prison is a maximum security prison with capacity for 750 prisoners. The Alexander South Youth Unit was set up in 1999 as a suicide and self-harm prevention unit for first-time inmates aged between 18 and 25. Australia ranks high on the list of youth suicide rates worldwide and being a young, male prisoner automatically increases the risk.

As Youth Development Officer, Anne Hooker is mother hen to the 72 young inmates in her charge. It seems she was born to do this job. Her sunny disposition and easy smile belie a requisite toughness and resilience.

“In the past, young guys would be here and within two weeks of getting out, they’d come straight back,” says Hooker. “Since this unit has been in operation, we’ve seen a reversal of that trend. They are keen to stay out and use the skills they’ve learnt in here to improve their situation. I don’t want to see any of these guys come back. That’s my aim.”

To secure and maintain a place in the unit, inmates must participate in a minimum of three educational programs a week and agree to abide by unit rules.

“Unit rules are intentionally very strict. A lot of these guys lack discipline and self-discipline, and those concepts are very important for effective rehabilitation and re-integration back into the community. They need to learn communication and personal development skills, to raise their self esteem and enable them to fit back into the community with ease,” she says.

The Unit runs a mentor program where older prisoners are hand-picked and hand-trained to live in the Unit, assisting with suicide and self-harm prevention and to encourage program participation. It was while surfing the Internet, looking for standards of mentor training best practice, that Hooker hatched the Hard Yards idea.

LAYING THE FOUNDATION

Hooker leads the way through a maze of security doors before arriving at Alexander South Youth Unit. A small corridor opens to the main room, a large central courtyard flanked by cell doors at ground level and above. At one end of the courtyard three burly guards man their station, like friendly nightclub bouncers.

In the courtyard, chairs and tables are bolted to the floor. Inmates sit in tracksuit pants, t-shirts and thongs. Some chop vegetables for dinner, some write, some talk. At the far end, the table tennis and billiard tables stand idle.

Interview room two is off to one side, empty now except for some plastic chairs arranged in a circle. Hooker recalls the extraordinary journey that began one bored Friday night mid-last year.

“Every time I put ‘mentoring’ in the search engine, it kept coming up with business mentors,” says Hooker. “I thought ‘what is this business mentoring? It’s driving me crazy’.”

Closer inspection led her to the website of Young Achievement Australia (YAA), a charity organisation that builds partnerships with business, government, education and the community. YAA run a program for students from years 10-12, post-secondary student groups and undergraduate students, where participants develop a company and learn business skills, with help from sponsors and mentors. YAA State Manager Nicci Richman had run the program many times in schools, but never a prison.

“I invited Nicci to come and visit us, to talk about it. She was really enthusiastic; it was great,” says Hooker, pausing to glance over at Richman with a knowing look. “Then she told me it was going to cost $3,500.”

To Hooker, this was a major hurdle, but one she was determined to clear. She had been fostering relationships between the prison and the business community through another charity, Pilotlight, where business executives visited the prison to meet the inmates.

“Pilotlight came to our rescue and found us a sponsor and that was OfforSharp, the business advisory firm.”

Before the program could go ahead, Hooker had to call in some favours to secure the services of mentors in the areas of business management, human resources, finance, manufacturing and marketing. Mentors volunteer two hours a week, guiding participants through their area of expertise.

With the necessary support in place, Hooker and Richman recruited 30 inmates and, in June 2005, the experiment began.

RAW MATERIAL

Photography: Steven Pam

Twelve of the original 30 saunter into the interview room, some more reluctant than others. Many ’employees’ have moved on: in a prison with an annual turnover of 24,000 inmates, guys come and go. The average stay in the Youth Unit is nine to ten months, current average age 19 – 20. This group seems even younger. Though their faces look innocent, they are accused of serious crimes, ranging from armed robbery to affray, aggravated burglary, serious assault, manslaughter, and murder. Sex offenders are excluded from this unit.

Asked to describe the experience of starting a business, first to speak is Ish, Hard Yards Managing Director. Switched on and confident, he seems an obvious choice for MD.

“We had a managing director who ended up leaving after three or four weeks and going to another jail, so a few names were nominated and I got the vote,” he says.

After registering the company, the inmates raised capital by selling 240 $2 shares to other inmates, family and friends. Then, they had to decide exactly what business they were in.

“We ran through some ideas, like a walking pack, t-shirts, caps and bandannas. We did some market research: we did a survey, to get in contact with people and see which product would be the best. In the end we decided on t-shirts,” says Ish.

With help from their mentors, the boys developed a business plan, including mission statement, vision statement, recruitment policy, salary, training and, ironically, a strict leave policy. To complete the course, 100 percent attendance is required and participants must apply for leave to attend court or see visitors. All salaries are donated to charity, as are profits. Recipient charities were decided by company vote. The Royal Children’s Hospital will be presented with a cheque on Good Friday, while the Salvation Army has been finding creative ways to channel donations from the program back into the Hard Yards business.

PUTTING IN THE HARD YARDS

Then came the task of turning the plan into action, within the restrictions of a maximum-security prison. Toll Holdings transported a printing press from Ararat Prison, free of charge. The press made it to the front door and stayed put for three weeks, while it ‘cleared security’. Finally approved, it didn’t fit through the door and was found to be in need of repair.

Other essentials, like t-shirts and ink, were more easily acquired.

“Anne and Nicci drummed up a host of people to donate things, so the business cost us virtually nothing,” says Nick, a prisoner mentor and company secretary. “Once they heard what we were doing everyone just jumped on board.”

Pilotlight became Hard Yards’ first client, with Pacific Brands donating 1,000 T-shirts: 650 to be printed to publicise Pilotlight’s book, ‘Change the world for ten bucks’, the remainder for Hard Yards to use as raw material. Executives from Smorgon Steel donated the ink, Gazman menswear offered 300 more T-shirts for printing, and then sold them through their retail outlets.

Ish says the hardest part of running the business was cutting through the red tape. In prison, it’s thicker and there’s more of it.

“There was a lot of waiting. I’d ask Anne for something and she’d take it up with the supervisor and then the manager and then the director. And by the time it comes back down the chain, three weeks later, we’re still talking about the same thing,” says Ish.

Eventually, 650 Hard Yards T-shirts were printed, ready for sale. Next challenge: sales, marketing and distribution.

“We sold 250 through the jail here, with other crims buying them,” says Nick. “I went out to all the units and told them about it. As soon as they heard it was for charity, they were all for it. We sold them for $10 in the prison, $25 on the outside.”

Like entrepreneurs everywhere, the inmates used their networks to get the word out.

“We made up a board, like a banner with the Hard Yards story and a T-shirt on it, which we put up in the visitor centre. We had the Hard Yards launch, where everyone involved was invited to a BBQ. Radio station Stereo 97.4 advertised. We told our families. Anne got her baseball team to buy them,” says Ish.

To date, around 600 T-shirts have been sold. Richman has a wealth of experience with the YAA program, as manager, mentor and even participant. Still, she was impressed with the way the inmates operated given their restricted environment.

“For all the marketing communications, for any phone calls and emails, they had to rely on Anne or one of the mentors,” she says. “That’s why it’s so amazing how well they did.”

Hard Yards Finance Director Mark kept a close eye on the bottom line throughout the program. It kept increasing.

“I’m good at cooking the books,” he laughs. “The number of T-shirts needed to breakeven just kept going down and down as more people helped out. So we were making more and more profit.”

Hooker proudly declares that the profit figure has passed $8,000. The group chimes in with the running joke about Hooker being keeper of the Hard Yards bank account, how she’s set up a nice little earner. She loves it.

STARTING OVER

Outside the interview room, Hooker stands on a chair and calls the inmates to attention. Figures emerge from cell doors, moving slowly to the central courtyard. Though slightly older, the assembled group look like any local schoolkids: the tough guys, the nerdy ones, and the class clowns.

Hooker quietens them down before introducing Richman to deliver an information session on the second Hard Yards program. She gives them the rundown, stressing that “it’s not like a classroom, it’s a real business.”

In his role as prisoner mentor, Nick encourages the group to get involved: “The courts love it, boys, and you get to go to a BBQ.”

The group disperses and, despite an air of reluctance, 26 prisoners sign up on the spot to take part in the new program, beginning in March. Some of last year’s participants sign on again, keen to take up a different role this time around. Outgoing Managing Director Ish reflects on the experience, the company figurehead speaking on behalf of his team.

“The program was run to teach us aspects of managing your own business. But we learnt more than that. We learnt to work as a team. In this group there are all different nationalities and everyone worked well together. There wasn’t any conflict. The group effort really motivated everyone to do their best. It’s good to feel part of a team.”

To Hooker and Richman, Ish’s confidence and enthusiasm are indicative of the program’s success.

“Ish didn’t speak in the beginning. And he didn’t do a lot in the beginning, until he became MD,” says Hooker.

“At the launch, each director got up and talked about their role and what they learnt from the program. Some of those guys had never spoken in front of a group before and they did such a good job,” she says, adding, “They were shit scared, though.”

While he may have done it the hard way, it seems Ish has found his entrepreneurial streak.

“No one wants to go and work for someone else to make the profit,” he says. “I’m a mechanic on the outside. When I get out, I’ll be starting my own workshop.”

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