Life beyond bars: finding a place for formerly incarcerated women within the hospitality industry

South Africa’s unemployment rate is sitting at around 27%, which translates to some 6 million individuals of working age being jobless. It should come as no surprise that – in desperation – many turn to crime, ending up incarcerated. And when they’re released, they’re faced with the same dire employment opportunities, yet their situation is compounded by the fact that jobs are even harder to come by for formerly incarcerated people…

Two French expats, Stephanie Simbo and Marine Durand, have taken it upon themselves to help ex-offenders find employment in the hospitality industry through a non-profit called Beyond Bars Akademia. We caught up with Simbo in this exclusive Q&A, to find out all about it.

Beyond Bars Akademia is a very exciting initiative. How exactly does it work?

BBA is a school aimed at rehabilitating formerly incarcerated women from Pollsmoor Prison through various type of hospitality training. It is a six-month process, where we provide accommodation, education and, at the end, a job placement for our graduates. 

Talk me through the course structure.

We’re in the process of changing it, so all I can say is that we’ve separated our curriculum into five different modules: motor skills, social skills, life skills, cross discipline and Ubuntu. 

These modules are aimed at not only creating technically oriented professionals, but also at helping the mental process of being rehabilitated. For example, meditation and problem solving are taught. 

Tell me about the BBA team. Who runs the programme with you, and who teaches the students?

My business partner, Marine Durand, and I are the main teachers. I’m a Wine & Spirit Education Trust certified trainer and Marine has over 10 years of experience in the hospitality field.

When it comes to the mental health or coaching of our students, Allison Arnold, a trained organisational psychologist from Allison Arnold Consulting, comes to the school twice a week. We also invite professionals from various backgrounds to run workshops in areas that they’re skilled in.

I believe you use the European Bartender School facilities in Woodstock for your classes. What does that entail?

Yes. Cassandra Eichhoff graciously offered to share her facilities with us, because in our first year we couldn’t find a place due lack of funding, and I guess because of the stigma around formerly incarcerated people. When the school is free of its own students, we can use the premises at our convenience. We hope to have our own space by the end of the year, probably near Muizenberg.

Which other organisations do you work with?

We work with Nicro – an NGO aimed at fighting recidivism and promoting non-custodial sentences – and the justice department … recidivism being the relapse into crime, usually due to the lack of alternatives.

Mostly these organisations act as part of our support system. Being a new non-profit company, funding and credibility is often difficult to get, which is why being acknowledged by other professionals in our field helps a lot. 

How do ex-inmates adjust to becoming hospitality students?

Formerly incarcerated women, please. We insist on changing the narrative here, as the term ex-inmate has a bad connotation that identifies them as criminals and thugs rather than people. 

So, the formerly incarcerated women adjust well at first, before realising that being out after months or years is not as easy at it seems. It requires a self-discipline that’s not taught in prison.

Most of these women are part of a system that failed them all their life. They had to take up roles that society chose for them. Roles that, most of the time, don’t provide structure or proper education. 

Added to that, the amount of work they must put into BBA and the discipline required of the establishment … For many, it comes as a surprise, and a few have rough initial weeks.

Other than education, what does the institute do to help formerly incarcerated women acclimate?

We work a lot on personal development. At the end of the day, we don’t aim to make them perfect robots, but better human beings … reformed ones. People who understood what they did, and who want to contribute to South African society. 

Tell me about your goals – how do you measure your success?

Our evaluative framework is centred on how many students graduate, and on non-recidivism. Some 85% of people tend to reoffend during their first year out of jail, so if they don’t, we consider it a success. 

How has BBA grown since you launched last year, and what lessons have you learnt along the way?

We’ve since finished our first promotion and the biggest lesson to learn was how patience and communication are key points when it comes to social entrepreneurship.

Rehabilitation is not a pretty field; with the added stress of forming highly skilled hospitality professionals, from time to time we ended up overwhelmed by the amount of work a small team like ours had to do. To manage it, excellent communication was, and is still, needed. 

What inspired you to start the initiative? And why a bar school, specifically?

Primarily, it started with a promise to my late brother, who went through jail when I was 10. Then, it turned into a will to improve the conditions of women around the world and fight mass incarceration. 

Gender inequality is still strong today. It denies women their voices, devalues their work and makes their positions unequal to men in every aspect of life. I wanted to create a platform where female excellence could be promoted, and show the world that rehabilitation measures offer better solutions than more law enforcement.

The hospitality part came up later when I noticed the lack of diversity in the industry, and I wanted to bring in more women, and those of colour!

What can the public do to help?

As a non-profit company, our biggest challenge is funding, so financial contributions are a good start, but donating materials or volunteering is also gladly welcomed. 

Last but not least, if you’re willing to hire one of our students, please don’t hesitate to contact us. [You can mail Stephanie on sps@beyondbars.co.za]

This post first appeared in Cheers Magazine in November 2018.