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New beginnings

From the Big House to the small screen Add to ...

Alia Pierini has management experience.

“Honestly, when I was selling drugs, it was a really organized operation,” says the young mother from Prince George, B.C. “I had people working for me, and under me, and was used to being a leader in that way. I can use those business skills and use them legitimately. Which I think is a huge asset.”

Ms. Pierini is at a job interview, of sorts – a most unusual one. She is sitting on a couch during a break between shootings of the new CBC reality show Redemption Inc. In the show, ex-convicts compete to impress Dragons’ Den co-star, entrepreneur and relentless self-promoter Kevin O’Leary, who will invest to help one of them get a small business idea off the ground.

It’s the latest example of a new fascination in Canadian television with a very real issue: the difficulties people face re-entering the work force once they’ve been incarcerated. Conviction Kitchen, which ran for two seasons on CITY-TV in 2009 and 2010, also focused on this theme, recruiting a team of ex-cons to work in a restaurant run by celebrated chef Marc Thuet and his wife, Biana Zorich. An Australian version of the show was also produced based on the Canadian format.

“It’s a massive issue,” Philip Whelan, the executive producer of Conviction Kitchen, says of the employment challenges facing ex-cons in Canada. “We were dealing with really clever people, and hard-working people. They just don’t have the academic background or the life skills. They’re all treated just as convicts.”

That’s why Ms. Pierini wants to work for herself. Her business idea is to open a paintball field in her home town. Not many potential bosses would take her leadership credentials seriously. Even though her slight frame and friendly smile don’t make for an intimidating mien, she has done time for drug trafficking, extortion, and aggravated assault – having attacked people who owed her money.

It’s not a story that elicits sympathy from many. But unemployment among ex-cons has real consequences. Multiple studies show that people who are unemployed have a far greater risk of re-offending. Keeping a single inmate in jail costs the federal government roughly $323 per day, according to 2008-2009 data from Correctional Service Canada.

Although Statistics Canada does not keep track of the unemployment rate among convicted offenders, recent research from the Correctional Service of Canada’s Offender Management System shows that the majority of offenders – roughly 65 per cent in 2008-2009 – placed in federal custody have “some” or “considerable” need in terms of employment – a need that has been steadily growing over the years, from 48.9 per cent in 2002-2003. Correctional Services Canada has a job training and placement service through its agency CORCAN and Community Employment Centres. Offenders who are able to participate in the service are also less likely to go back to jail, research shows.

“In the past, a lot of companies have had a blanket policy of do-not-hire if someone has a criminal history, for obvious reasons,” says Kristina Hidas, vice-president of research and development at the Human Resources Professionals Association, a 20,000-member governing body for Canadian human resources professionals. “There’s a move away from that now … but there are still social stigmas. It’s one of the hardest things, to walk out of prison and develop traction all over again. Because basically, your résumé is blank.”

Ms. Hidas says she’d also like to see her association work more in the future to eliminate the sense of shame around a person’s background that can follow them into a job even if they manage to find one. “HR can play a really important role in making it possible for an ex-convict to integrate fully into the workplace.”

There is perhaps no better model for ex-cons overcoming career challenges than former convict Brian O’Dea, who made a stir in 2001 when, at the urging of his wife, he paid $1,300 to run a classified ad in the National Post seeking work – entitled “Former Marijuana Smuggler.” Among his experience, Mr. O’Dea wrote that he “participated in the executive-level management of 120 people worldwide, in a successful pot smuggling venture with revenues in excess of US$100-million annually.” He received roughly 600 replies from around the world.

Mr. O’Dea has since published a book with Random House, High: Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler, has developed television series in Canada, and works as an adviser to the contestants and to Mr. O’Leary on Redemption Inc., which premieres Monday night.

“Most people who are lawbreakers are independent business people,” he says. “… All that we’re doing here, is we’re channelling their same energy.”

Participant Jeff Jones channelled his energy into small business when he got out of jail as well. Having learned to tattoo his fellow inmates, he opened a shop in Petawawa, Ont., and says he hopes to expand his business with Mr. O’Leary’s help.

“They [the other inmates] were my guinea pigs,” he says. “I tattooed and tattooed, and never stopped tattooing. I came home and opened a business with it right away. So I took my sentence, and I turned it into schooling.”

In the case of Conviction Kitchen, many of the participants landed real jobs: three of the original Toronto cast still work with Mr. Thuet, and others work elsewhere in cafés, bars, and outside of the food industry as well, such as one who is working in retail, Mr. Whelan says. All because they got back into a job, and got the crucial reference to take them to the next one.

“It’s a struggle. It’s having that ammunition to say, ‘Look, I am employable,’” Kitchen producer Mr. Whelan says.

“These are people that showed a certain amount of business acumen on the wrong side of the law. The purpose of the show is to see if they can take those skills and apply them in a different arena,” says Redemption Inc. executive producer Cathie James, of Toronto-based Proper Television. “These people are able to connect with customers, with small business owners, and that surprised me. … They’d stand up among any group of people. They’re not good contenders who are ex-cons. They’re just really good contenders.”

On the set of Redemption Inc., Mr. O’Leary clears his throat and waits for the cameras to roll. As the crew looks on in the control room, where a social worker is present to keep watch on the treatment of the contestants, Mr. O’Leary weighs which person will be the next to go. It’s a process he’s familiar with, giving tough love to would-be entrepreneurs on shows such as Dragons’ Den for CBC and Shark Tank in the U.S.

But he says this group is different.

“My perceptions have completely changed,” Mr. O’Leary says. “I didn’t realize, when you get incarcerated federally, and you come out, you’re a complete pariah to society. You can’t get a credit card, you can’t get a job, you can’t borrow any money, you can’t issue public securities, you can’t sit on a board. When people check your history, just a normal background check, you’re toast. The system’s broken.”

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