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Road to Redemption


Tony Layh from Social Business Innovations

Although Victoria has one of the country’s lowest incarceration rates, the issue of post-sentence re-integration is one that affects all who have fallen foul of the law. Even a light sentence or a charge for petty crime can encumber a person’s potential future employment options once they have served their sentence. It is cases such as this where General Manager of Prison Industries at Corrections Victoria  and Hawthorn local Tony Layh steps in. His role fulfils the desire for ex-cons to earn an honest living through his consulting business, Social Business Innovations.


The business is based on learning from five years work with a procurement program of skilled labour of ex-prisoners. In his role, Tony stared down the social stigma attached to former prisoners when liaising with employers and negotiating on behalf of his once convicted clients. “Some employers would look at you like ‘are you serious?’ if you propose employing ex-prisoners,” Tony says. He has battled these issues through exposing potential employers to prison life. “I arranged for day trips to prisons so potential employers could see the kind of skills people on the inside are developing as part of their sentence.”

Correctional facilities - by definition - take corrective approaches to inmate rehabilitation. These take the form of education, courses and actual work within the prison, to assist with reintegration upon release.


“When a person enters prison, if they’re under 65, they have to choose some kind of study or work.” Tony explains, “Structure is very important in prison. Having daily work or study gives these men and women a kind of purpose that was missing for a lot of them on the outside. I mean, when someone goes to prison, one of the first questions they get asked is ‘were you employed?’… A whopping 80% are unemployed before sentencing.”

The possibility of employment after a sentence offers many inmates hope and motivation, Tony explains. “In prison, inmates work on developing soft skills as well as transferable technical skills. After incarceration, many of them want to go to work immediately. So if we can turn up to a business with a ready-to-go workforce, employers can avoid the hassle of going through advertising and screening processes.” 


Tony is motivated to help inmates avoid the cycle of recidivism - or the act of re-offending. In his experience, four primary barriers need to be addressed in order for real change to be realised. “The combination of a lack of housing, no positive personal network, unemployment and substance abuse issues are often at the core of recidivism,” he states. “Through secure employment, ex-inmates can start to build new networks away from the criminal networks many found themselves a part of before incarceration. Once earning an income, the person can then afford housing and it enables ex-prisoners to develop an appreciation of what they have achieved - It gives them a sense of hope.”


Tony has helped 225 ex-prisoners find work in various occupations including hospitality, retail, and warehousing. While some employers are hesitant about hiring staff with criminal records, examples of a more welcoming environment are not uncommon. “I can think of one case where an employer unhesitatingly put an ex-inmate on the till in their business as a direct show of trust,” Tony recalls. “The act of trusting in someone’s better nature can have a tremendous impact on their self-worth.”


Luke Anderson from Fair Threads

While Tony primarily focuses on finding employment for ex-cons, six years ago he encountered Luke Anderson, a young man driven to turn his life around after sentencing by building his own business designed to help other inmates. As an entrepreneur, Luke recently launched Fair Threads - a venture that focuses on creating employment and skill-building opportunities for former inmates through the sale of streetwear, approved prison garments and personal items. 


Currently, items dropped off for inmates by outside contacts undergo intense screening and can often be rejected as 'non-compliant', leaving prisoners without basic necessities. 

Fair Threads provides a secure online shop where prisoner's families are able to buy and send prison-compliant items to inmates, cutting down on the manpower required to scrutinise all dropped-off items. This system also removes the risk of third-party handling so Corrections Victoria staff know that any property coming into the prison is from a secure avenue and all property received is easily traceable.


Luke’s plan caught the attention of Tony who mentored him with constant encouragement, helping Luke to realise his vision. “From our first interaction up until the present, Tony has been a massive support,” Luke says. “He saw the value in what I wanted to achieve and provided insights into ways Fair Threads could offer value, not just to people in prison and society, but to Corrections Victoria and potential commercial partners. He saw where I was coming from and where I wanted to go, which has made the journey a lot more comfortable.”


Through understanding the barriers to ex-prisoner re-integration, locals like Tony are working to shatter the stigma affecting a person’s value and ability to reinvent themselves; regardless of their past. “It’s all about the ‘fair go’ that we Australians are happy to use as an expression… But with that, I reckon you also have to walk the walk.” 

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