Co-op teaches offenders to ‘co-operate out of crime’

A unique co-operative organisation in Manchester, UK is teaching offenders how to ‘co-operate out of crime’. Co-op News went to find out more. 

A unique co-operative organisation in Manchester, UK is teaching offenders how to ‘co-operate out of crime’. Co-op News went to find out more.

Two years ago Bobby Unwin was serving a custodial sentence in Styal prison. Within one hour of being released she had been set up with a place to live by co-operative: Ex-Cell Solutions.

“If it wasn’t for Ex-Cell, I don’t think I would be here today, when I came out of jail, there wasn’t any support there;” she explained.

Ex-Cell took her on as an admin assistant, and after realising how well she was working with the offenders, offered her a place on the board of directors. 

Bobby now works as the Finance manager for Ex-Cell. She explained that while in prison: “You could just so easily slip, because you’ve been around offenders, it’s just your lifestyle, it’s what you’re used to. If you haven't got that focus of work or something to do in the day, you are going to carry on the way you were.”

Ex-Cell works with offenders and ex-offenders and teaches them the benefits of working co-operatively, encouraging them to set up their own co-operative enterprises. They have helped set up an IT recycling organisation called Recycle IT and a cleaning co-op called Stardust Cleaners – all run by ex-offenders.

Ex Cell became a co-op in 2009 when the staff were facing redundancy. Dave Nicholson, one of the founders, explained: “ we felt that the co-op model was not only a good way of creating your own employment, but for offenders and ex-offenders it provides that additional mutual support for resettlement and rehabilitation.”

Offenders go on a ten-week training course and are taught the benefits of mutualism and self-employment. The project has been very successful. Ex-Cell also have a contract with Co-operative and Mutual Solutions Ltd and the Ministry of Justice to develop co-operative and mutual approaches to reducing reoffending.

Through their work – offenders and ex-offenders work together to offer support and mentoring.

Bobby explained: “We seem to be growing a family of ex-offenders, ready to help other ex-offenders. It works well – they feel welcomed, they volunteer to work with us, they want to work with us, and it’s not something they have to do.”

Ex-Cell works with around 30 people each year and currently has impressive reoffending rate of zero percent. The average reoffending rate in the UK is 26.8 percent.

Dave said: “It’s not a huge number we work with, but that’s one of the strengths because its small numbers and we can work very much on a one to one basis.”

Now their main focus is working with women at Styal with a co-op called WAGES: Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security. Women take the ten-week training course on self-employment and become part of the WAGES co-op.

Bobby explained: “We did a pilot last year for women and it really opened their eyes to working co-operatively, and what we’ve learnt is ex-offenders helping and supporting more ex-offenders seems to work really well.”

From the pilot, three women who were released are currently setting up their own businesses.

Bobby added: “It’s a brilliant programme, the difference in the women between the beginning and the end is huge. Their mind really does open. They’ve got hope that they can actually change something in their lives, whereas at first, they’re sat there with their arms crossed and they feel like they’re going nowhere.”

She recounted the story of Sharon, a drug user with over forty custodial sentences for shoplifting. Sharon had been in and out of jail for years and had always done the art classes.

“When she was on the programme she thought, I might make these greeting cards, I could make a business out of this;” Bobby said; “We’ve been working with her since June last year and this is the longest she’s been out of prison, for twenty years.”

Sharon now runs an art workshop for other ex-offenders and wants to do a course so she can be accredited.

Ormond Williams, another member of Ex-Cell, explained: “Sharon is motivated, she’s focused and we believe Ex-Cell had some part to play in that. She’s concentrating on her strengths, which is being creative and artistic, and not on her weaknesses.”

In Styal they are also working on creating a multi-stakeholder horticultural co-op, which will include prisoners and prison staff. The co-op will join veg co-op Manchester Veg People to give the women opportunities once they leave.

Ex-Cell are the only co-op in the UK to work this way. In a report Dave explains how the Co-op Movement: “pays little, if any, attention to what it could do in prisons, probation and in rehabilitation and reducing reoffending generally.” However, there are similar projects across the world.

The Co-op Bank also supports ex-offenders by being the only bank to provide them with bank accounts. However, Dave said though that work was good, it was different to Ex-Cell.

“What we’re doing is helping offenders to help themselves in a co-operative way;” he added.

Ex-Cell are continuing to grow. Ormond explained what is they key to their success: “We believe anyone can change, anyone…. This co-operating out of crime – that is key. We go on this journey together, Ex-Cell will hold your hand”.

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