Former prisoner Victoria Kate Johns explains why she created charity Leather Inside Out, which provides inmates with training in leather craft to help them find future employment
I spent a period in custody from 2010 to 2012 at [now closed] Holloway prison after being found guilty of obtaining an electric transfer by deception. This was not the direction I expected my life to take – I had been a career lawyer working at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in London. I was very frightened of going to prison. While I was there, I was struck by the opportunities and privileges I’d had in my life compared with some of the other women I met in prison.
When I emerged from custody in 2012, I was bankrupt, divorced and had one bag of possessions to my name. I had no sense of identity or who I was any more.
It was a period of extreme self-examination, but I was sure I wanted to focus my life on making a meaningful contribution to prison reform.
Quite by accident, I started working for a design studio that specialised in leather craft. We would work with young designers who were interested in producing in the UK, but found that we couldn’t compete with the volumes and low prices of overseas manufacturing in countries such as China.
I had assumed that any job I found after leaving prison would be in some way charitable, and I began to realise that I was in the middle of something potentially relevant. There was this frustration about the decline of UK manufacturing skills, and yet there was a workforce inside prisons – some of which were practically on the doorstep of the studio – who weren’t being utilised or incentivised.
Last year, I started Leather Inside Out, which provides prisoners and ex-prisoners with life-changing skills and training in the leather craft and fashion accessories industries. Our Design for Life programme allows prisoners to learn these skills while earning the National Minimum Wage. Our pilot project last year was a collaboration with accessories brand Anat Nicole. Last autumn, women working in the East Sutton Park and Downview prisons created braided leather handles and fittings for a range of bags, belts and bangles.
The prison model lends itself to supporting manufacturing. Leather accessories often involve work that needs to be done by hand.
Working in a prison is similar to a manufacturing unit: there’s a routine and a discipline that is required. Prisoners often have no formal qualifications, but lots of time on their hands that they want to use productively and learn skills that could help them in the future.
If the fashion industry came together and worked on programmes that paid prisoners fairly to create garments or accessories, it could make a big difference. It comes back to the question of what people are being paid and what they are learning while in prison.
If people are not learning and they are not rewarded properly, they are going to struggle. The pattern of reoffending is costing the UK taxpayer billions of pounds every year.
There are many areas I’d like to develop. Our main focus this year will be creating a space where we can teach skills to people on licence or day release. As well as offering training, I want to educate the public and stop the stigma around ex-prisoners.
Contact Leather Inside Out:
020 7388 7933