Hard cell: The entrepreneurial programme for prisoners

The Prison Entrepreneurship Programme being run in Wheatfield Prison looks to harness energies in a positive way, and has been proven to reduce recidivism rates

Domini Kemp speaks to prisoners at Wheatfield Prison while running her entrepreneurship programme, now in its second year. Photograph: Alan Betson

Domini Kemp speaks to prisoners at Wheatfield Prison while running her entrepreneurship programme, now in its second year. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

“You were very good on the Today Show,” says Nigel, who has been seven years in Wheatfield prison, to the celebrity chef and business woman Domini Kemp.

“Thank you!” says Kemp.

Nigel and eight other men of varying ages are sitting with Kemp around a table in a room in the prison school. There are posters of Yeats and Joyce on the wall and the men are dressed casually, in shirts, T-shirts, jeans and tracksuits.

There are 410 prisoners here. Most are here for less than five years, although there are 72 lifers. The men in the classroom have been variously jailed for crimes such as drugs, robbery, assault, and, in one case, murder.

To visit I’ve passed through a metal detector, up the stairs through several heavily armoured doors and walked along a long creamy yellow corridor that’s broken up by big metal gates. When you look out the windows you can see a barbed wire fence with a net, designed to catch contraband thrown from the other side. You can also see prison wings with cell windows jutting out to the sides. In the courtyards below are bits of rubbish which some prisoners throw out the windows. “We’re getting new windows soon which will stop that,” says prison officer Pat Murphy.

Since 2016, Kemp has overseen the Prison Entrepreneurship Programme, a scheme that originated in Texas where it’s been proven to reduce recidivism rates from 25 per cent to 5 per cent. The notion underpinning it, says Kemp, is that prisoners are often innately entrepreneurial and that these energies can be redirected. Her students agree.

“There’s an entrepreneurial spirit in everyone in prison,” says a middle-aged prisoner called Jim. “Even drug addicts, they’re very resourceful people. There’s no reason why that resourcefulness can’t be turned around and used to live a decent law-abiding life. We could live a decent life, do you know what I’m saying?”

“I definitely have entrepreneurial qualities,” says another man called Michael. “I make money out of nothing. But I didn’t know tax existed.” He pauses. “The taxes are very surprising. They absolutely rob you. The government are the biggest thieves of the whole lot. They should be locked up themselves.”

Kemp laughs. “This man should be minister of finance,” she says. “He’ll sort out the tax regime.”

Kemp and the prisoners seem to like each other. “We’ll all speak with posh accents in here soon,” says Jim at one point.

Kemp sighs. “In here,” she says. “I’m the one who has to watch my language.”

The session starts with Kemp giving feedback on their newly refined business pitches. Dennis is a softly spoken middle-aged man who wants to offer barbering service for older, less mobile people. Kemp loves his idea but vetoes his chosen name, “Con Hair.”

“Yeah, we won’t be using that name,” says Dennis and he laughs.

Jim has provided a bit too much detail for his dogcare which he hopes to run someday on a bit of inherited land. “We know this is a great idea,” says Kemp, “but this is a bit all over the shop.”

“It’s a reflection of his personality,” says Michael.

“Keep it succinct and tight,” says Kemp.

“I tried to sum them all up in this catchy piece of advertising material here,” says Jim. He shows her a flyer he’s designed featuring a picture of some dogs. “Don’t those dogs look like they’re having fun? Why can’t they enjoy the holiday?”

“Brilliant,” says Kemp. You enjoy your holiday, let the dog enjoy theirs. That’s your tagline”

“I’m going to try to get the van from Dumb and Dumber with the dog’s ears,” says Jim. “If that’s in the car park it’s sold.”

For a moment it feels like a funny conversation about business plans that could be happening anywhere in the country, then a loud distorted arpeggio erupts from an intercom speaker in the wall and there’s a prison-related announcement.

“Hi-de-hi, campers!” says Jim.

“That thing drives me insane,” says Michael.

“Butlins,” mutters Jim 40 minutes later when the intercom goes off again.

***

The entrepreneurship class at Wheatfield prison. Photograph: Alan Betson
The entrepreneurship class at Wheatfield Prison. Photograph: Alan Betson

Everyone here is working on businesses related to things about which they are already very enthusiastic. Even before coming to prison, Cathal, a young health and food obsessive, wanted to set up a community café to fight the scourge of fast food in his neighbourhood. “I want to be bigger than the Happy Pear,” he says. “Childhood obesity if it’s not tackled is going to cost €7.2 billion by 2042 in Ireland. ” He taps his head. “I’ve got the facts.”

Nigel, an older man, discovered writing in prison and is working a novel. His business idea is built around writing. “I have the hand written off me,” he says.

Andrew has a very good idea involving carpentry. He discovered a love for woodwork the week after arriving here. “Now I’m kitting out the whole jail,” he says. “I’m making the new benches in the visiting area. I’m making my ma a solid mahogany kitchen table. It’s what I want to do for the rest of my life . . . I only have 15 weeks left . . . Every day I’m just dreaming of getting a little van and a workshop.”

Dennis, who is doing a life sentence, also found his calling here. “There was a barber shop already open and the chap who had opened it was in doing a sentence himself . . . I got three or four years of him teaching me the trade. Now I run my own barbers seven nights a week. It’s like a proper barbershop with barbering chairs and mirrors and everything. It makes me feel relaxed and I love making people feel happy about themselves.”

“I wouldn’t let anyone else in here cut my hair,” says Cathal.

“I know if I came to barbering before I came to prison I probably would never have come to prison,” says Dennis.

Jim has done course after course here, but the one that meant the most to him prior to this was a short lived kennelling programme for unwanted dogs. “We must have saved 80 dogs that would have been put down,” he says. “Nearly 20 years in prison and you never had anything to care for. Your emotions are on hold and all of a sudden you’ve a dog to look after and you’re waking up and the same love you’re giving is coming back to you. That’s a big deal for people who’ve been in jail 20 years.”

***

Kemp regularly brings in experts from outside. This week it’s a former bank manager named Sean (he prefers not to give his second name), a warm, attentive man, who is helping them create plausible business plans.

Today they’re submitting business projections in balance sheet form. “Oh, this one is colour coded,” says Sean. “Fair play!”

He starts going through the details of each person’s contribution, pointing out interesting details as he goes. He also shows them his own sample balance sheet. “I’ll go get it photocopied,” asks Nigel, who leaves the room and comes back a few minutes later with 12 pieces of paper.

There’s a discussion about what’s tax deductable. Caution is advised. “Going on a sun bed is not tax deductable,” says Kemp. She thinks. “Though maybe you [Dennis] could get away with it because you could say you need to look your best as a barber.”

For the record: Transition-year girls are scarier than prisoners

Sean continues to go through the balance sheets, pointing out things here and there. “You have to pay yourself a wage,” he says at one point. “All of you sitting around this table have various attributes particular to yourself. You have skills and life experiences, they are worth charging for. Don’t believe you’re better than anyone or worse than anyone, you are as good as anyone else.”

“You said not to put a wage in,” says Andrew.

“Did I?” says Sean.

“Yes,” says someone else.

“Sean’s an old man,” says Kemp and Sean laughs.

“Domini, that’s below the belt!” says Michael.

Jim is a bit despondent looking at his projections. “Maybe if I got a job looking after the Queen’s corgis I’d have some chance of making money,” he says.

“Every business starts somewhere,” says Sean. He’s very encouraging.

***

Does coming into a prison scare Kemp? “No,” she says. “I’m used to working in kitchens and all male environments and that army-like having to shout. Kitchens are very meritocratic places. If you work hard you can work your way up. There’s good banter and an element of teamwork and minding the team and that’s how I feel with these guys as well.”

She loves teaching. She has done programmes like this before, but with transition year students. For the record, “transition year girls are scarier than prisoners.”

She says that she understands how difficult it might be for victims of crime to understand people helping prisoners like this, but that programmes like this have been proven to reduce rates of re-offending. She believes in giving people “a second chance”.

Does she know what the people on the course have done to be put in here? No, she says. “I’m just here to teach a class.”

***

Sean talks to the men about looking for a bank loan and the importance of having a good credit rating.

“How does it affect you when you have no credit history?” asks Jim. “I had a bank account in the early nineties that’s long been closed down.”

“I got a phone years ago and never paid for it,” says Andrew.

Sean explains how they can to check their credit history. Everyone scribbles everything he says down in their notebooks.

“I’m saving money in here at the minute,” says Cathal. “Would I be better off signing that out and putting it in the bank?”

Sean suggests that he should. He also recommends the Credit Union.

“Should I borrow a Rolex watch off someone just before going to meet the bank manager?” asks Jim

“No,” says Sean. “Be yourself. Bank managers are good at reading people.”

“So they’d suss you,” says Jim quietly.

“But what chance have we going into the bank saying, ‘Sorry I robbed you previously, can I have a loan?’” asks Michael. To be clear, this is a joke. Michael has not robbed a bank.

They’re all worried about having to tell people they’ve been in prison. Kemp says that this is something that won’t necessarily come up. Sean offers to sit down with some of them to work on loan applications.

This course gives you a chance to be that person you want to be

“You don’t necessarily want anyone to know you were a prisoner,” Andrew tells me later. He’s very young and he’s due to be released soon. “You want to make a fresh start. I don’t want anyone to know I was locked up. I want to put this behind me.”

“I don’t worry about that to be honest,” says Paul.

“I do,” says Andrew. “I want to forget I was ever in this place and make the most of what’s left of my life.”

***

It’s hard to stay hopeful in prison. Some prisoners use the time to focus on education and training but others do not. “When I came in I was all over the shop with drink and drugs so wasn’t even thinking,” says Paul, who has an idea for a specialised paving business. “I don’t even remember being sentenced. After a few months I came up here [to the school] and that straightened me out.”

Paul has also discovered oil painting. Later, in the art room, art teacher Bernie Masterson shows me a very good painting he did of Conor McGregor (“I’m going to try and sell it to him for the craic,” says Paul). She also shows me another he painted featuring a man chained to a bird cage while a bird flies free.

“Lads slip through the cracks in here,” says Andrew. “They get involved with alcohol or drugs . . . The minute I landed it was me against the officers but my family on the outside encouraged me to use this time. I wanted to change.”

Moral support is important. “Too often in prison you’re told you’re no good or that you’re wasting your time and that hasn’t been said to us once on this course,” says Nigel. “Domini is great at talking us up.”

That means a lot, says Andrew. “We have a lot of people looking down your nose at us. Some officers who think you’re no good and you feel yourself that you’re no good sometimes. I know I’m good but you don’t get to show that here. This course gives you a chance to be that person you want to be.”

***

Towards the end of the class Kemp gets each person to pitch their business again. She encourages them to keep it simple.

“Luxury day care for your dogs,” says Jim. “Because I love dogs.”

“I’m passionate about cutting hair and providing a warm and welcoming environment so you can enjoy your experience,” says Dennis.

“Anything you can think of, we can make it,” says Michael, who makes garden funiture. “And it’s cheap,” he adds.

“You’re not ‘cheap’, you’re ‘well-priced’,” says Sean.

“Our payment plans are flexible,” says Michael, correcting himself.

Kemp entreats them to continue their research. To do this they need to use their initiative because they have very little access to the internet here. They can ask friends or family on the outside to help but this is easier for the younger men on shorter sentences. “I haven’t really got someone on the outside [to help],” says Jim. Sean offers to help.

There’s a discussion about premises and landlords. Cathal, who seems very organised, has already located a premises for his business. Kemp warns them to be careful with their leases. “Sometimes you can sign something where you end up working for the landlord,” she says.

I just want to leave some sort of legacy for my daughters and my nieces after I go

They have a lot of questions about insurance. Kemp says she’ll bring in someone from the insurance industry to talk to them. Jim queries whether he needs public liability insurance.

“But you’ll have dog owners on your premises,” says Kemp.

“I’ll drop the dog back to them myself,” he says. “‘Get off me land,’ I’ll be saying.’”

She laughs. He’ll still need insurance, she says.

***

“Prison takes away your future from you,” says Nigel. “This course gives me and the other lads a future. It gives a focus of not just six months or eight months but two, three years down the line. That’s hard to do in prison.”

“There’s a lot of time to think here,” says Paul. “You’re only out of the cell six hours a day.”

“You’re isolated in prison,” says Cathal. “You’re bored in prison. Working on a business lets you leave here for an hour or two. It’s good for your head.”

The programme will finish up in March with a Dragon’s Den-style competition in which the participants pitch their businesses to a panel of experts. The prize is further business mentoring and €1,000 of investment into the start-up costs for the business (given based on receipts). Some are more competitive about this than others. “I’m already practising,” says Cathal. “I’ll be bringing in samples. I want to do Michelin star level salads.”

“I’m not really thinking about that,” says Dennis. “I just want to leave some sort of legacy for my daughters and my nieces after I go. I want to build this for them and that’s what’s given me so much motivation to make it a success.”

Andrew was on the course last year. He loved the competition. “I wore slacks and a shirt and so I got stick the whole way across. ‘Are you going to court?’ But I went over red-faced and went in. There were three people in there. My idea then was to do interior designs for disabled people because I have a cousin with special needs and it’s very hard for him to get around the house. I had a gorgeous coffee table I made down in the joinery which I had to show them. I didn’t win. I was robbed!” He laughs. “That day it didn’t feel like I was in here anymore.”

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