Originally published in The Voice
LIKE ANY Entrepreneur, Leroy Johnson admits he spends a lot of time thinking about new plans to expand his growing business.
But Johnson, the Creative Director of In-Sync, a music company that includes an online radio station, a digital music distribution arm and a DJ talent agency, is no ordinary entrepreneur.
After receiving a prison sentence for using threatening words and behaviour in July 2012, all the plans that Johnson had for himself seemed to have disappeared forever.
The 43-year-old already had a successful career as a radio DJ and in music production for some of the UK’s leading record labels.
Johnson had only just registered the website for his new venture when he was involved with a dispute with a neighbour who accused him of physically threatening him.
He strongly denied the claim, but it wasn’t enough to avoid a 30 month sentence.
“I was shocked and bitter at the sentence,” he recalls. “I felt I was convicted on lies.”
Despite his anger at the sentence, Johnson eventually realised that in the bleak circumstances, something good could come out of the situation.
Aware of his music background, staff at Brixton prison, where he finished his sentence, asked him to help out with producing shows on its radio station which broadcasts to prisons all over the country.
“I came into a scenario where I had a lot to learn and where there were a lot of people that needed help.
“When I was working on the radio station I would talk to some of the younger guys on the wings and get them involved in the station learning production skills rather than sitting down and doing nothing all day. I believe things happen for a reason. It was a very negative thing to happen but positive in another sense because loads of things that are happening now for me that weren’t happening before.”
When his sentence came to an end, the prison’s staff put him in touch with the Centre for Justice Innovation, a London based charity that promotes innovative approaches to criminal justice in a bid to cut re-offending and create better outcomes for victims of crime.
The Centre recently launched a new national scheme called the StreetCraft Scholarship, which takes four people with innovative ideas about how to improve the criminal justice system and pairs them up with experts to help them make their ideas a reality.
Johnson applied for the scheme and put forward a proposal to use his music company to provide training opportunities for young ex-offenders who want to work in the music industry or create their own music related businesses.
His application was successful and he will now undergo an intensive three month Apprentice-style business training programme to get In-Sync ready to make bids to big money investors.
“Looking for work can be difficult when you have been in prison” he says. “However, when you create a business you can decide to focus on something positive. And that’s especially important if you have just been released because you need stuff to be thinking about and you can’t always be looking to other people to help you. The problem is people in my situation just don’t think they can do it. They’ve got the ideas but the doubt sets in.”
Johnson is excited about how his business will be able to help young people who are struggling with this lack of self-belief.
He says: “What I saw and learnt in prison has driven me to provide support and a training ground for those young people who are unable to find the right training and work opportunities in the music business which is known to be a difficult industry. They may want to be the next big rappers, which may just be a figment of their imagination to start with, but with the right training in business ethics, the appropriate skills, access to contacts, understanding of the industry and how it functions there is a better chance to bring them one step closer to achieving their dreams. StreetCraft Scholarship has been so important in helping me take this idea forward.”
Anton Shelupanov, associate director of the Centre for Justice Innovation, says people like Johnson are exactly who they are trying to encourage when they launched the scheme.
“Leroy is a very smart guy. He’s obviously very good at what he does and has a lot of experience in the music industry” he says. “His motivation for applying for the StreetCraft Scholarship in a bid to help others in a similar situation to himself and his success in winning it is a testament to his personal qualities. It’s important to acknowledge that people make mistakes but once they make those mistakes and have paid their debt to society they come out the other side and we should encourage them to develop their talents. Many ex-offenders do have an entrepreneurial energy and it’s very important to find the best ways to channel that in a positive direction. By supporting people like Leroy we are supporting their vision which will have an impact on the next generation of criminal justice pioneers.”
According to Shelupanov there is a lot more scope for creative thinking to help people like Johnson contribute to society after they have been incarcerated.
“The criminal justice system is very good at managing crisis, something very immediate such as headlines about prisoners attempting to escape or cracking down on a particular trend in violent crime. But because it is so busy firefighting, the system doesn’t encourage people in it to take a step back and reflect on what they are doing or how they could be doing it differently.”
However statistics suggest that this type of debate is worth having.
Research from the Prison Reform Trust published in 2009 found that just under 27 per cent of the prison population was from a minority ethnic group.
The figures also found that overall, prisoners from an African or Caribbean background accounted for the largest number of minority ethnic prisoners (54 per cent) despite forming just over 3 per cent of the population.
Another report, published in 2011 by the chief inspector of prisons and the Youth Justice Board, found that young black men account for nearly 40 per cent of the population of youth jails in England and Wales.
According to Startup, a national charity that helps people who are serving prison sentences to create their own businesses, many of these young people will struggle to rebuild their lives when they leave prison without a bank account, permanent address or stable employment.
As many as 50 per cent of Startup’s clients are from a black or minority ethnic background.
Its chief executive Juliette Hope says that encouraging offenders to start and run their own businesses is a very good way to help them re-integrate back into society and make a positive contribution.
“I believe passionately that self-employment is a brilliant way, but sometimes the only way, to help people who have been in prison back into the workplace, back with their families and back to being financially viable” she says.
“Often, people who have been in prison have managed to get their lives back on track by going on some courses, getting themselves thinking about what they want to do when they get out, and that’s where we step in. We focus on doing a very simple business plan template because if you give someone something so complex, you get off the track of making it reality. We start from the standpoint of ‘what money do you need to pay your bills? What money do you need to set up your business?’ And then we try and work with that. We don’t give loans. We buy the equipment for them and it can work well. And for those who go onto full self-employment we give them a year’s support, whether that is to do the first year accounts, see a marketing expert, or provide peer mentoring.”
Statistics show that Startup’s approach is effective. The re-offending rate of its clients is five per cent compared to a national average of 65 per cent.
One of its clients, Roslyn Callender, says the help she received from startupnow played a crucial role in helping to turn her life around.
She is a former crack cocaine addict who served a four and a half year sentence for importing a Class A drug.
While behind bars, she was introduced to the charity.
After serving two years of her sentence, and getting free from drugs she set up her own beauty products business based in south London.
She is planning to move from branded goods to selling her own homemade products.
“I was on a suicide mission. I just wanted to die,” says Callender of her former life. “I was out of control, a hard crack user.
“Without their assistance I would have re-offended or gone back to drugs, for sure. Instead it has helped me realise I’m not that bad a person after all.”