Guardian sustainable black corset lingerie businessBehindBras: lingerie business dreamed up in jail aims to help women prisoners
After serving 12 months, Barbara black corset lingerie Burton set up a social enterprise selling bras, with profits going into training to help female prisoners find jobs after release.
On Barbara Burton’s first night in HMP Durham, she was given three sets of prison-issue black corset lingerie. It was plucked hastily from a shelf and didn’t fit properly. “From that point your dignity is completely gone,” she says, thinking back to that day in 2012.
It was the first time the 55-year-old had been to prison. The early days were a blur. “I just didn’t want to see anybody, I was too ashamed,” she remembers. Finding a job on release was her biggest worry – who would want to employ a middle-aged woman with a criminal record?
Five years later and Burton is back on prison turf, only this time to promote her social enterprise, BehindBras, which officially black corset lingerie launched this month. “I have restored dignity and femininity back into bras by designing my own. The profits will go into supporting women in prison to learn skills they can use to get work when they’re released.”
“I want to help women to put prison behind them – we know that having work reduces reoffending by 20%,” she adds.
Fewer than one in 10 women have a job to go to when they are released and almost half (45%) are reconvicted within a year, according to figures from the Prison Reform Trust. Lack of qualifications, childcare and low pay all contribute to the employment prospects of women following short sentences being three times worse than for men, explains Jenny Earle, who leads the charity’s programme to reduce women’s imprisonment.
“Women face added stigma. It is widely assumed that if a woman has been in prison she must have done something terrible when in reality they are probably there for something like shoplifting,” says Earle.
'Why can’t you just go and watch Jeremy Kyle?' a prison officer once quipped.
Like 85% of women in prison, Burton’s crime wasn’t a violent one. She’d been handed a 30-month sentence for her part in a mortgage fraud racket and ended up serving 12 months across four different prisons because of overcrowding.
Knowing that finding a job after prison black corset lingerie would be tough, Burton armed herself with a business plan. “I had never written a business plan before in my life but I was determined to do something constructive with my life and I thought of [BehindBras] because I absolutely love fashion,” she says.
“In prison I was only driven by building my business plan. I gathered as much information as I could. I was a library headache and a computer room headache – I got a reputation with the staff for being a pest,” she laughs. “Why can’t you just go and watch Jeremy Kyle?”, a prison officer once quipped.
When Burton was transferred to East Sutton Park, an open prison, a local charity called Changing Paths funded her to go out on day release to study fashion and business at the London School of Fashion. Burton would like to give similar opportunities to other women preparing for life after prison.
She has designed her first signature bra with the help of design and manufacturing company In.Dwear and fashion business consultant David Jones, who has worked for brands such as Aquascutum and Karen Millen. There are plans for black corset lingerie BehindBras to partner with fashion academies and a number of the UK’s 13 women’s prisons to deliver practical training for creative industries, including textile machinery, employability workshops and social media training in collaboration with fellow social enterprise TechPixies.
While women’s prisons do offer some education and training, it is often not wholly relevant to today’s workplace, or the workplace of the future, says Jocelyn Hillman, CEO of charity Working Chance, the UK’s only recruitment consultancy for women with criminal convictions.Inside story: the fashion labels that hire prisoners
“Women in prison don’t need to learn hairdressing or beauty, they need to learn coding, Excel and business administration.”
Burton is confident that the skills BehindBras will help to foster will be future-proof assets for women leaving prison. The UK textiles industry generates £11bn every year and is growing in size, with 15,000 jobs expected to be created in UK textile manufacturing by 2020. Major brands including River Island, Asos and John Lewis are investing more in onshore production and others are following, according to the Alliance Report.
Textile manufacturing lends itself well to self-employment, Burton says. “Despite the fact that over 10 million people in the UK have a criminal record, many employers are extremely hesitant to even consider the idea of hiring our candidates,” adds Hillman. In a CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) survey of employers, only 12% had employed somebody with a criminal record in the previous three years, and one in five had deliberately excluded those with a criminal record when recruiting.
Day release made all the difference to Burton. The Prison Reform Trust says it is not discrimination from employers but national prison policy which is the main barrier preventing opportunities for work and training from being taken up. The use of day release has fallen dramatically since changes to the policy were made by former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling.
Ultimately Burton would like to see a change in black corset lingerie attitude towards women in prison. “I hope this lingerie will connect women on the outside with the forgotten women in prison,” she says. “We all wear underwear, it is close to our hearts.”
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