Jack* says having the opportunity to work for Barbed Design while in prison is good for his emotional, mental and physical health.
Jack* says having the opportunity to work for Barbed Design while in prison is good for his emotional, mental and physical health. Georja Ryan

The criminal I wasn't expecting to meet on a visit to prison

HIS eyes are soft, friendly, but show no naivety.   

He speaks with intelligence; his elocution on point.   

He's smart. It's obvious he's smart.   

I've heard the highlights of his resume, so perhaps I have already half made up my mind about him, but I would be lying if I said I was expecting a new-age optimist. Especially when the man I am meeting is serving a 15-year prison sentence.   

"You can only control what you can and not what you can't," he says.   

He's referring to where he is now and has been for more than two years. It's where we met and where he will remain for at least the next six and a half years.   

Jack* is serving 15 years for a non-violent crime and will be in the high security Borallon Training and Correctional Centre near Ipswich at least nine years before he can apply for parole.   

While I can't disclose what he is in for, or his real name, I can tell you he isn't the convicted criminal you expect to hang out with on a visit to jail.   

We are sitting in a graphic design studio - the only of its kind in any Australian prison - and Jack is taking me through his average work day at Barbed Design.

From 8.30am-4.30pm Monday to Friday, 17 prisoners work in this studio; a shed that looks more like a computer room from my primary school, or maybe it's the similar green uniform.   

Barbed Design operates like any outside studio and its staff work on legitimate projects for organisations. Inmates are paid for their time just like a real job and it means upon release they have something in the bank.   

The Work Restart initiative is an attempt to reduce the re-offending rate of prisoners - almost 40% return to jail within two years of their release.   

Borallon Training and Correctional Centre
Borallon Training and Correctional Centre Georja Ryan

Working while incarcerated is no new thing with many jails offering labour force opportunities, but for the inmates who don't fit into the hands-on tradie sector, who are more intellectual and creative, Barbed Design is the only example of a prison offering the opportunity to learn and work in graphic design; a skill that is in demand in the outside world. Or in Jack's case, continue what he did for work before he landed behind bars.  

A qualified Adobe instructor, Jack spent many years training Sydney corporates how to use graphic design programs such as Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. He has extensive experience building the back end of websites and has qualifications in film and TV.   

He has a Masters in Architecture, is a yoga instructor, practises Ayurvedic therapy and remedial massage and is starting his doctorate looking at the effects of virtual environments for education and trauma therapy.  

"I'm blown away that I am in prison, but still doing what I did on the outside - it's quite surreal," Jack says.    Previously assigned to work in the prison kitchen, Jack jumped at the opportunity to be part of Barbed Design when it opened a year ago.   

Like the other employees, he had to go through a proper interview process with the studio managers and prove he deserved a spot on the team.   

Amanda Shepherd is the studio manager. She's funky, she's fun and she doesn't take crap.   

Before helping build Barbed Design with Work Restart, she was a top-class graphic designer with a corporate background; a world away from cell blocks and wire fences.   

"Understandably at first I thought I might be scared - I had never been inside a prison. But I was surprised," she says.   

"I have the most dedicated design team - I have never had one so dedicated.  

"This week we had a client wanting 630 deep etches, and I thought it would take ages to complete, but they had it all done in a day.  

"There are no distractions - except Solitaire or Minesweeper," she laughs. "They just come in and do their work and are grateful they can be here."  

Barbed Design studio manager Amanda Shepherd and Borallon Training Correctional Centre general manager Peter Henderson.
Barbed Design studio manager Amanda Shepherd and Borallon Training Correctional Centre general manager Peter Henderson. Georja Ryan

The aim of Barbed Design is to equip prisoners with job-ready skills - not just in graphic design, but any full-time work.  

"Not everyone is going to become a graphic designer, but they may have never had an office job before or had to understand time management or reporting to a superior - especially a woman - so they learn all these skills here," Amanda says.   

With a client list surpassing 20 and more than 150 projects in its portfolio, the team, which started out as 10 and has almost doubled in a year, works a busy schedule.   

"We are getting busier, which is great. When we have down-time we do self-directed training to highlight interests and develop those," Amanda says.   

"We have a mixed bag of workers. Some have never used a computer before and some are quite experienced.   

"We have one guy who was a qualified Adobe trainer in his outside life - we weren't expecting that! He helps out with the training."  

She's talking about Jack.   

As a senior designer in the team, he plays a mentor role to the beginner designers.   

I ask him what his favourite project has been so far and he's only one mouse click away from bringing it up on screen to show me.   

It is a video for the Queensland Conservation Council about land clearing that helped shape the political agenda in 2017.   

"I have made a lot of ads in my career and it's kind of odd to be trapped in prison, but still being able to help create a change in society," he says.   

"It makes you feel connected to the outside world."  

If he wasn't in the studio he says he would "probably be playing chop (a card game) and watching a shitload of TV". 

"Up here I get to express myself and have some connection to freedom."  

Reflecting on the time he has been incarcerated and ahead to the years he has left, he thanks initiatives like Barbed Design for his ability to retain his optimism.   

"I'm positive, I'm adaptable. I can't be beaten by this - no way. I am just so glad this (Barbed Design) is here.  

"It's developing ways to truly rehabilitate and reform people and I hope the rest of Queensland and the country can do that too."   

By the time our conversation is wrapping up I have forgotten I am sitting in a room with 16 other inmates, surrounded by a razor wire fence and guards on every corner.   

And inside Barbed Design, absorbed in his passion for design and creative expression, I think Jack might too. Even if only for a minute.  

*Not his real name.     


Carving a future for life on the outside

LIKE many 20-year-olds, Mitch* hasn't always been on the straight and narrow.   

But he reckons Barbed Design has helped him carve a pretty clear path to get there.   

It is his second time in jail and this talented graffiti artist says it will be his last.  

"(Barbed Design) has made me a different person," he says. 

"I have a much clearer state of mind than I had when I was on the outside.   

"I know what I want to do now and I am not coming back."  

He says his aim while in prison is to learn the skills that could set him up for employment once he leaves.   

"My aim is to get the best preparation for when I am released to give me options to look for employment on the outside," he says.  

Mitch* with his favourite project he completed while working for Barbed Design - an anti-violence poster which was erected around the prison grounds.
Mitch* with his favourite project he completed while working for Barbed Design - an anti-violence poster which was erected around the prison grounds. Georja Ryan

"I was doing a plastering apprenticeship before I came in but I have always been into art and street art. I want to use graffiti art in a positive way."  

While inside, Mitch has put his creative skills to good use helping with client design campaigns as well as his favourite project, an anti-violence poster which was erected around the prison to deter anti-social behaviour among inmates.   

"All the other posters like this are dull but this one appeals to the types of people in here and to everyone really, so it felt good to do it for a good cause," he says.   

At the time this story was published, Mitch was released on parole and if his prediction was on point, his first port of call on the outside was going to be "a steak at the pub with a lemon lime and bitters" and then a hunt for full-time employment, steered by a new attitude and dose of self-belief.     


About the Jail

BORALLON Correctional Centre opened as a private prison in 1990 and was decommissioned in 2012 when the Southern Queensland Correctional Centre opened near Gatton.  

In April 2016 it re-opened as Borallon Training and Correctional Centre to ease overcrowding in Queensland prisons.

The $145 million plan included transforming it into an 'earn and learn' facility and is the only jail in the state with a dedicated TAFE facility on-site. Sections of the prison are still under construction, due to re-open later this year.  

Borallon Training and Correctional Centre
Borallon Training and Correctional Centre Georja Ryan

Inmates can complete certified training and leave with nationally-recognised qualifications not attached to the prison. 

Courses currently on offer include a wide range of skills, such as horticulture, engineering, welding, automotive, construction and tertiary education through the University of Southern Queensland. Barbed Design was introduced in April last year and remains the only operating graphic design studio within a prison in the country.  

The jail currently has room for 350 prisoners. When fully re-opened it will have room for 736.   

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