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Heather Matheson and Sally Garratt, of the Worshipful Company of Management Consultants, are undertaking a Board and Governance Review for Working Chance. In order to gain an appreciation of the support it provides to serving offenders, Heather Matheson, Managing Director at Friary West Limited, spent an afternoon with Working Chance inside HMP Holloway.  

After some 25 years in HR and business management, I prided myself on never making assumptions about anyone. During an afternoon inside the walls of Holloway Prison, however, I found myself having to check on some stereotypes I’d taken for granted.

I was there for an Interview Practice Session, an afternoon of “speed-interviewing” with a group of female prisoners expected to re-join the workforce in the next six months. I was picturing the scenes I’d watched on television in Prisoner: Cell Block H – caged women with hard edges, petty dramas, dangerous cliques and bullies.

I’d been invited to take part by Jocelyn Hillman, CEO of Working Chance. Fiercely passionate about her cause, Jocelyn started this charity in 2007 to help female ex-offenders back into work. She knew that finding sustainable paid work was the only way for these women to rebuild their lives, secure safe accommodation and, for many, regain custody of their children.

I was joined outside the Prison Security Office by 17 other employers, representing a surprising number of major organisations including Pret a Manger, Mitie and Bank of Tokyo. Just like me, many were nervous about what lay ahead, but confident in the belief that they would be doing something good. Whether they would later offer job opportunities was another matter – first they wanted to find out whether these women had the skills and attitudes necessary to succeed in the workplace.

Entering the prison and queuing to get through the security checks, I was reminded of being in an airport. Many doors were unlocked, relocked and locked again as we made our way towards the education block. Entering the area, I saw positive messages on the notice boards – organograms, flowcharts and self-help numbers. This area was clearly dedicated to the future and to hope.  

Armed with tea and biscuits, we were briefed by the Working Chance team. We had about 12 minutes with each candidate – this was definitely speed-interviewing! At the 10-minute mark, we would get a nod from the organisers and then would have a further couple of minutes to wrap up the discussion and note down our feedback. 

The agenda for each interview was straightforward. First of all we would ask our candidates to talk us through their ideal job, their reasons for wanting to do it and the skills they thought they could bring to the role. Then our candidates would be expected to disclose their convictions, explaining why they had been jailed and trying to persuade us that they posed no risk of reoffending.

I was nervous about the disclosure part, although I knew this was what the candidates most needed to practise. It made sense, certainly, for these women to try out their disclosure before a real job interview, but it was a tricky subject to broach. How would I do this?  Would I just say: “What are you in for?” Or was there a better way to ask?  Could I focus on a gap in their CV? 

I was mulling over these questions as the employers spread out over two rooms, to 12 interviewing tables labelled with company names. We all hushed as the imminent arrival of the candidates was announced. A bustle at the door and the women were directed out, one to each desk.

What followed were a truly amazing couple of hours. What I saw, what I heard, what I felt that day inspired me. I saw strong women, women determined to get their lives back on track and to bring their children home. I heard candidates talk about what they had learned from being in prison, how much they wanted a job and the opportunity to build a better future for themselves and for their families. The women I met were looking forward to and believed in a new life. I felt proud to be part of the Working Chance Interview Practice Session and pleased to see that the candidates really wanted and valued our help. For me it was an afternoon spent on a new experience, but for them it was so much more: it was an afternoon of hope, a step towards their new lives.

I met women wanting to work in finance, hairdressing, peer mentoring and retail. The candidates were articulate, focused, well-presented and confident in explaining how their experiences and skills would make them great employees. They talked about having to earn the respect and trust of an employer, about the time this would take and about how they might build up this relationship. Many spoke of their commitment to not letting people down – and I believed them.

As my last interview came to an end, I glanced at my watch. The afternoon had gone by so quickly!  Candidates and employers assembled for a group feedback session and employers were asked to voice their reflections on the afternoon. Everyone felt like I did: everyone had been inspired by the candidates, by their resilience, their openness and their motivation. Without exception, I could see how these women would add value to a workforce.

The candidates thanked us for giving them the opportunity to sit in front of real employers and talk about the future. For me it was an unexpectedly moving afternoon of surprises and reflection. I met a group of strong and inspiring women who simply want a Working Chance. Let’s give them that.