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From prison to popcorn: Woman starts business behind bars, challenges companies to hire people with criminal records

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A new report reveals Canadian companies are continuing to overlook job candidates due to criminal records.

The John Howard Society, a non-profit agency that advocates for crime prevention and reintegration, interviewed hundreds of hiring managers at Canadian companies. More than half admitted to running criminal record checks and in some cases, automatically rejected anyone with a record.

Roughly four million Canadians have a criminal records. Advocates believe businesses could benefit from giving everyone a fair chance.

“We know from direct experience and research that getting a job is critical for people trying to rebuild their lives,” said Kathryn Barratt, program manager at the John Howard Society of Waterloo-Wellington.

From inmate to business owner

Emily O’Brien is a woman from Hamilton who is open and honest about her past.

“I was in prison because I was the worst drug mule of all time,” she told CTV News.

She was arrested at Pearson International Airport in 2015, after smuggling drugs across the border.

“It was just a bad situation I was in,” she admitted.

O’Brien was sentenced to four years behind bars and spent some of that time at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener.

Emily O’Brien and her mother at Grand Valley Institution for Women. (Submitted: Emily O’Brien. )

She came up with the idea for her business while behind bars, creating Comeback Snacks, marketed as “popcorn so good – it’s criminal.” O’Brien tries her best to hire people with criminal records as she knows first-hand how hard it can be.

“When people have nothing, they really want to fight for someone to believe in them,” she said. “They’re never going to want to let the position go. They just want to prove themselves so badly.”

Challenging stereotypes

Both O’Brien and the John Howard Society encourage companies to push beyond biases and challenge stereotypes about those who have been incarcerated.

O’Brien said many business owners falsely believe someone that has been in prison must be violent or is going to steal.

“What people don’t know, or what they should know, is that majority of people in prison aren’t in there for violent offenses,” O’Brien said.

The John Howard Society said it’s important to give everyone an equal chance.

“The criminal record records may have nothing to do with the job that they’re applying for,” said Barratt.

Fair chance hiring

Barratt said companies should think twice before overlooking people with criminal records and consider fair chance hiring policies.

“You base your employment decisions on your applicant’s qualifications rather than their criminal record,” explained Barratt.

Not only could it be beneficial to employers during a tough economy, it’s what many former inmates need.

“Employment reduces reoffending, builds identity, and self-esteem,” Barratt said.

O’Brien believes it is what the prison system should be for – to prepare people to go back into the world and have make a successful comeback into society.

“You have to provide steppingstones for people to actually get back on their feet or I’ll start just going to go back into that cycle,” said O’Brien.

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