Beveren thrift shop teams up with local prison

Summary

An intercommunal waste company with a thrift shop recently found an unusual partner organisation in its quest for additional space and staff – a newly minted prison

Strange bedfellows

When a new prison opened in the East Flemish town of Beveren a couple of months ago, the local outcry was swift and strong. Not-for-profit waste organisation Ibogem, whose offices and thrift shop are situated just 500 metres from the prison (pictured), however, looked beyond the commotion and saw an opportunity: Their new neighbours could help them with an expansion of their thrift store.

“Because of a lack of staff and working space, we could at that time process and offer for sale only part of the useful goods we received,” says Wim Beeldens, general director of Ibogem. “As a result, many suitable items ended up in the waste containers.”

The prison, meanwhile, was looking for labour opportunities for its inmates. So since June, nine prisoners have been working for the Ibogem thrift shop at a new workshop set up at the prison. The two partners hope that their collaboration will help convicts prepare for their re-integration into society.

Following Ibogem’s example, three commercial companies have also contracted prisoners at Beveren to work for them.

The federal justice department is responsible for the screening of the inmates, who are admitted to the programme on the basis of their motivation and skills. Ibogem pays €6 per hour for the prisoners’ labour. They receive only part of this sum as payment, after costs for administrative services, among other things, have been deducted. 

Professional relationship

During normal work days, which run from 8.00 to 16.00, the prisoners perform three kinds of tasks in the workshop. One group inspects and sorts the textile materials, another focuses on small electronic devices, while a third group repairs bicycles. This bicycle repair service is part of a larger professional training programme. 

They learn to work in a team again and develop their sense of self-discipline

- Ibogem general director Wim Beeldens

The inmates, who remain under surveillance of the prison guards, are assisted and monitored by two Ibogem staff members.

According to Beeldens, there was no need for extensive additional training for those staff members working with the inmates, although they were instructed to meticulously observe the necessary regulations. “It’s important for our staff to maintain a purely professional relationship with the workers,” explains Beeldens, “and to not discuss personal issues or information on the functioning of Ibogem.” The Ibogem staff are also not told about the criminal acts the convicts have committed.

The project offers significant economic and ecological advantages, since it allows the thrift shop to expand its stock of merchandise and to reduce its amount of waste. The added social advantage is also considerable. Thanks to the collaboration, the Ibogem store can, for example, provide much more of their inexpensive merchandise to low-income residents in the area.

For the prisoners, the project offers the chance to earn pocket money, which they can use to buy credits for telephone calls or to surf the internet. But Beeldens also sees more fundamental advantages.

“Instead of sitting isolated and idle in their cells, they develop skills, which can be useful when they return to the general labour market,” he says. “They don’t just fine-tune their technical skills, but they also learn to work in a team again and develop their sense of self-discipline.”

A successful collaboration

Ibogem has also set up a small thrift shop with second-hand clothing at the prison workshop. Some prisoners – those who don’t have family nearby, for example – often don’t have much in the way of clothing.

According to Beeldens, the collaboration has been extremely successful for both parties. “The convicts work so well we sometimes have trouble keeping up with them,” he says. “We notice they look forward to the work because it brings more variation into their daily lives.”

While the initiative has not led to any security problems, the project did make headlines recently when mobile phones and kitchen knives were found among the product load that Ibogem delivered to the prison workshop.

“But those were discovered before they could end up in the hands of convicts,” confirms Beeldens. “We have now introduced an extra preliminary sorting procedure that should avoid these kinds of incidents in the future. It would be a pity if a positive project like this was negatively branded.”

Beeldens also feels that their system of collaboration could be a model for other non-profits with budgetary constraints.

Photo courtesy Bativox

An intercommunal waste company with a thrift shop recently found an unusual partner organisation in its quest for additional space and staff – a newly minted prison.

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