Commit a crime, do time in prison, get out… but what comes next?
“Having no job opportunities and having no choice but to commit crime again,” says Step Jones, founder of Onwards and Upwards – a charity aiming to free ex-offenders from the cycle of reoffending by offering them jobs.
Jones, previously an advertising executive, saw the damaging reality that reoffending could have on people during his four years as a chaplaincy volunteer at Brixton Prison.
“Often after six or 12 months, some of the guys that I had waved goodbye to were back and they were back by and large because they couldn’t get into work, which of course meant that they went back to what they know and then ended up back where they started – inside.”
Touched by the stories of the people he mentored, Jones felt compelled to do something to help prison-leavers from falling into the trap of re-committing crime.
“At the time I didn’t know what exactly I was going to do, but I knew that is what I was meant to be doing probably with the last third of my life.”
With the help of a friend of a friend, Rob Love, Jones successfully set up a charity solely focused on changing ex-convict’s lives – Onwards & Upwards.
“Because the cycle of reoffending is mainly driven by businesses refusing to take on ex-offenders, I thought to myself: ‘what I’m going to do is start by giving them jobs,’” Step explains.
Around 18 months ago, Onwards & Upwards opened its first venture – XO Bikes, a bike shop that not only refurbishes bikes, but provides jobs for ex-prisoners.
The bike shop, which is located in Lewisham Shopping Centre, is currently being used as a workshop, providing prison-leavers with training and manual skills to fix bikes.
The shop takes on old, donated bikes and fixes them up so they are able to be sold online via Ebay and the shop’s website.
“I’m not looking for customers that want a bargain. I want customers that want to support these guys. So, if anything, they pay top dollar for a really good product because the truth is they’re very good.”
Once refurbished, each XObike is given a visible orange code that links the bike back to its original mender – and a pair of handcuffs that work as a bike lock.
“We’ve sourced these big, heavy industrial handcuffs – so instead of locking your bike, you cuff your bike to a rail with these bright orange handcuffs. So, that even from 100 yards, you’ll go: ‘that’s an XO Bike.’”
Most of the bikes that XO refurbishes are donated from the Metropolitan Police’s warehouses of stolen and lost bikes.
“The Police have been great so far. By giving us bikes, they are encouraging us and this business. We can then train some of those guys leaving prison, so they haven’t got to re-arrest them. Is that a good use of their bikes? Yeah, of course, it is. It’s a no brainer.”
Step says his vision for XO Bikes is to simply give ex-convicts their lives back.
“I want them to say: ‘yeah, I made some mistakes, but I’m not letting that define me. This is me now – I’ve got a job, I’ve got a career and I’m loving it. I’m earning a wage and I pay taxes. I’m keeping hours and I’m having a great time at work.’ That’s what we want. It’s not complicated. It’s just what you and I often take for granted.”
XO Bikes has trained and hired three ex-offenders so far, changing their lives for good. Step says the employees are earning above the London Living Wage.
“The truth is, if you support them, you will not be able to get rid of them. They will be the most loyal, hardworking staff you’ve got because no one else has given them a chance.”
ELL spoke to two XO Bike employees.
Jamie says he went down the wrong path at a young age and has been to prison 13 times.
“I just decided one day that it was enough,” he says. “Especially because I have to look after my little boy, who is three.”
Jamie, who has had an interest in bikes since he was young, did a training course for a week at XO and was hired by Step as a full-time bike fixer.
“Being here has made me realise that’s it’s good to be around people like this and keeping out of trouble,” he says. “You have to change your mind if you want to get out of reoffending and change your life.”
By going to prison just before turning 18, Edu missed out on the opportunity of pursuing further education.
Having a conviction on his record meant that finding a job has always been hard.
“That was difficult for me,” he says “As ex-prisoners we’re all willing and hoping to have a chance. We’re not all bad.”
XO Bikes changed his life by offering him a job as assistant accountant and training him to become a part-time bike fixer.
“It’s not just about bikes, you know. It’s the support you receive altogether from them. It’s great.”
What comes next for XO Bikes?
XO Bikes is planning to open its doors to customers over the next couple of weeks to allow them to to purchase bikes in-person.
Onwards & Upwards is also planning to open another four businesses over the next five years including a barbers, fitness centre, clothing businesses and food shops.
“We want to create genuinely great businesses, where they can earn a good wage,” Step says.
Step hopes that in time, Onwards & Upwards, can become a pioneer for loosening the stigma around hiring ex-offenders.