Blog written by Sir Richard Branson

How business can offer ex-offenders a better chance

At Virgin, we’ve long believed in the importance of supporting people with criminal convictions, especially those who have spent time in prison. As a business, it’s part of our responsibility to support people who deserve a better chance to help get their lives back on track.

I’ve spoken about the case for working with ex-offenders on many occasions. At Virgin, we’re more than aware that it provides clear business benefits, such as access to what is widely seen as a loyal and strong talent pool, as well as improving the disruptive and entrepreneurial potential of our teams.

While we’ve come a long way over the years, we’re always looking for ways we can improve our work. That’s why our team at Virgin Management brought together the People Directors of nearly all our businesses worldwide to discuss the ways we can do more to support groups like ex-offenders.

One of the organisations that addressed our companies was Census Life, an award-winning social enterprise that gives businesses the chance to hire people currently serving a prison sentence.

One of those people is Nicola Whitbread, who spoke movingly at our event. Nicola’s story is one of extraordinary trauma and enormous bravery. A survivor of violent domestic abuse, she began to use drugs and eventually needed to fund her growing addiction by offending – shoplifting, which saw her go to jail 12 times. Caught in a vicious cycle of offending, addiction and custody, Nicola lost everything – her children, her family, her friends.

On the last few occasions in jail, Nicola talked about being fortunate enough to work in the Census Life call centre at HMP Peterborough. In her words, “Going to work each day was my lifeline. Not only was I earning money, I was treated as a valued member of the organisation and for those few hours each day I didn’t feel like I was just another prisoner.”

18 months after leaving prison and a promotion later, Nicola is the proud manager of Census Life’s life insurance campaign. She manages a team of 20+ agents and trains them in customer service skills.

Nicola’s story is one of extraordinary fortitude, and it’s a wonderful reminder of the role business can play in helping turn people’s lives around.

Here are some of the ways your business can support ex-offender rehabilitation:

1. Hire ex-offenders

There are now hundreds of UK businesses that directly employ people that come out of prison, and there are several ways your business can do it too. Companies like Timpson lead the way, having hired 148 people from prison to work in their business last year. Other companies like Greene King are a fantastic example of integrating ex-offender hiring as part of their pledge to support social mobility throughout the UK hospitality sector. There are plenty of charities that partner with business to make that happen – Offploy is an excellent example, supporting over 150 people to date with criminal convictions into employment. Other charities worth taking a look at include The Forward Trust, Catch 22 and Working Chance.

Other businesses have chosen to Ban the Box, this means removing the tick box from application forms and asking about criminal convictions later in the recruitment process. If you’re not ready to start hiring directly from prisons, this is a great way to get started.

2. Involve your people

Organisations like StandOut offer the opportunity for businesses to volunteer their staff to run CV workshops and mock interviews for people coming out of prison. It’s a good way to allow your people to share their knowledge and expertise for those who could greatly benefit. It might seem like a small gesture, but sometimes these are all that’s needed to give people with criminal convictions the hope that someone is willing to give them a chance.

3. Buy products made by ex-offenders

There are plenty of social enterprises that work within the walls of prisons giving inmates the chance to build the type of skills that will help them thrive on the outside. Redemption Roasters are one such organisation, running coffee academies in prisons throughout the UK, where they teach inmates competition-level barista skills. They have several coffee shops around London but you can also buy their coffee wholesale, a perfect way to use your supply chain for good.

My Fight


More to explore

Breaking the mould

It is widely reported that staff turnover in the call centre industry is around 26% annually, considerably above the national average of 15%.

Corbett Award Winner

We are proud to announce that our social enterprise, Census Life, has won the 2019 Corbett Network SME of the Year Award.

Richard rowley

Richard Rowley is the Managing Director at Census Life and is responsible for all criminal justice work the social enterprise undertakes. 

Richard has over 20 years’ experience of working with voluntary, public and private sector organisations in the criminal justice arena and still retains the same desire to support people to become the very best they can be. 

Richard is also very proud to be a Trustee for POPS (Partners of Prisoners and Families Support Group) in Manchester. 

On the off-chance he is away from work, you’ll find Richard watching football, cooking and spending time with his family – not necessarily in that order!

Kelly Carrel

Kelly Carrel is the Chief Executive of Census Life and is responsible for leading the strategic direction and overall effectiveness of the organisation.

 Kelly has over 20 years’ experience of working within the Customer Management sector and, over the past 7 years, has used this experience to provide meaningful work experience and relevant training to those farthest from the job market.

Most specifically Kelly is focussed on individuals serving custodial sentences, and working with them during this period to ensure they have opportunities for employment on release. Passionate about pursuing social mobility, through the route of employment, this is the key driver of the work for Kelly and her team.

Outside of the office, Kelly enjoys travelling, martial arts & air acrobatics along with spending time with friends and family.

The Census story

Census Group was founded in 2013 by Ian and Kelly Carrel, following their respective careers working in large scale in-house and outsourced contact centre operations both in the UK and overseas.

In 2010 Criminal Record Bureau (now DBS) background checking was becoming ever more prevalent, regardless of whether the role required it. The founders recognised there was an urgent need to address the issues highlighted by this process, as more contact centre agents were losing roles across the industry with a ‘blanket’ approach being applied to every adverse CRB check. This experience in contact centre environments highlighted a significant frustration – having to let well-trained, enthusiastic staff go when their checks returned showing previous criminal convictions. With attrition rates in the industry reaching levels of >25% we knew we could develop an incredibly competent workforce that would also have a wider impact on society

Through our corporate social responsibility strategy we have consistently reinvested profits, to go the extra mile and support colleagues as they leave prison and reintegrate back into our communities. To make this much more fundamental to our work we have developed Census Life, our not-for-profit social enterprise.