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Kevin O'Leary in Toronto, Sept. 14, 2011.

It only took half a day behind bars to humble Kevin O'Leary.

Anyone familiar with O'Leary's cold treatment of contestants on Dragons' Den or his bullish behaviour on The Lang-O'Leary Exchange will scarcely recognize him in the opening episode of Redemption Inc. (CBC, starting Jan. 9).

To facilitate the new reality show's theme of giving ex-convicts a second chance, O'Leary submitted to a faux arrest in Chatham, Ont., which was followed by booking, fingerprinting and a 12½-hour stretch in solitary confinement wearing an orange jumpsuit.

"It was bad," O'Leary admits, "but that's how your spend your first night in jail when you get arrested. The lights stay on but there's no sound. You can't sleep. It's a form of sensory deprivation and you have no idea if it's day or night. For me it was Dante's hell on earth."

O'Leary looks rumpled and shaken when released in the morning. "I kept the jumpsuit as a souvenir," he says.

Booked for an eight-episode run, Redemption Inc. was developed for CBC by British reality-TV producer Jasper James, who previously worked with O'Leary on the Discovery Channel series Project Earth.

On Redemption Inc., O'Leary provides a chance-of-a-lifetime experience for former guests of Canadian correctional facilities – which in itself could rattle some parts of the viewing demographic.

"This show is going to be very, very controversial," he predicts. "When we showed clips to an audience, half the people went crazy that we were glorifying criminals, and half said it's the best thing they've ever seen."

The unscripted format of Redemption Inc. follows 10 individuals who have served time for various offences, except violent crimes and crimes against children.

In the spirit of The Apprentice, the show puts the participants through a series of weekly challenges to test their mettle. One ex-con is ejected each week; the last one standing receives $100,000 from O'Leary to back his or her business idea.

"It was a strange project in that the stakes were so high," says executive producer Cathie James. "We're used to watching people who want to be singers or actors on a reality show. These people are fighting for a second chance, so watching them succeed or fail is really powerful."

O'Leary's blunt advice to the ex-cons in the opener: "Don't screw this up."

The first episode introduces viewers to Alia, a former crack dealer who wants to go into the snow-removal business. Or Joseph, who was convicted of securities fraud and has plans to open an antique shop. And Aaron, who served time for trafficking cocaine and now sees his future operating a truffle farm.

"Some of these people have tremendous talents," says O'Leary. "Look at a successful crack cocaine dealer. He has to manage distribution, marketing, production and inventory controls. It's a bad business, but it has all the same challenges that face the guy running a big corporation."

During the challenge segments, the ex-cons are mentored by former drug smuggler turned venture capitalist Brian O'Dea, who serves as O'Leary's eyes and ears on the series.

The rehabilitation journey begins with the ex-cons taking labourer jobs at a shop specializing in detailing luxury cars. After a few minor mishaps, and a scraped Mercedes fender, the group has earned the full respect of the shop owner.

"The performance metrics of these people, versus the average employee, is simply stunning," O'Leary enthuses. "When you're given a second chance, you're not like a regular employee. You work like hell to stay on your boss's radar."

And in the reality-TV process, the ex-cons are gradually assimilated back into society and validated in most cases. O'Leary is already keen for shooting a second season of Redemption Inc. – and franchise versions of the show all over the globe – if only to alert employers of a heretofore-untapped resource.

"We have to change public perception of ex-convicts" he says. "Most Canadians don't realize that when you come out of prison you're a complete pariah. You can't get a car loan or money from a bank to start a business. So most end up back in prison within 24 months. It's just so wrong. We need to fix this problem."