JUST SPECS AND PRISON OPTICIANS TRUST: Social enterprise helping offenders build new lives
Tanjit Dosanjh’s dad going to prison inspired the Trust
Just Specs, launched recently by optician and founder Tanjit Dosanjh, whose dad going to prison was the catalyst for the Trust, features an array of designer frames and prescription glasses, including a range made by ex-offenders.
The new brand marks another big stride forward for the firm that now has a £1 million turnover and a multi-faceted business that includes the training programmes via its charity arm supported by the company’s eye care services to prisons.
It is now the UK’s biggest and most competitively priced supplier serving more than 50 prisons and having made some 50,000 spectacles and carried out 42,000 eye tests. Since starting up in 2012 that is a tally it calculates that has saved taxpayers around £700,000.
“Rehabilitation is at the heart of our business,” says Dosanjh. “We have taken prison optometry services and standards to a new level, provided the first clinical guidelines and forms for the safe handling of eye care emergencies when no optician is on site, the nearest so far to telemedicine.”
Trainees in open prisons are chosen as they approach the end of their sentence and take a 10-week course with day release that covers topics such as anatomy, understanding prescriptions and measurements.
Trust graduates speak of the opportunities giving them the strength to carry on and change for the better, have purpose, find confidence and reintegrate.
“None of our trainees has gone back to prison,” adds Dosanjh. “But I never forget that society has more deserving causes than people who have broken the rules. So being a financially independent is important and made us innovative.”
The problem it is tackling is huge. Reoffending costs £15 billion a year and almost half of prisoners are unskilled. But with 20 full time or locum optometrists on its books, the Trust’s training so far has led to 40 current and former inmates finding jobs and careers.
But it has taken much breaking down of barriers posed both by initially risk-averse employers and unreceptive authorities tied into complex contracting systems, says Dosanjh.
He was spurred on by the lack of vocational training he saw when on family prison visits.
Persevering with a self-funded optical training pilot in prison that brought him to the attention of charities. In 2015 he received £172,000 of funding from the Sainsbury Family and Paul Hamlyn Foundation to set up a training lab in Maidstone, Kent.
From there he went on to get key prison optometry contracts from Care UK and in 2016 the first trainees secured paid jobs with a local optician.
“I had forever been worrying that it would all collapse and wondered why I had taken on all this stress. But that was a turning point,” Dosanjh recalls. “Once we had one accept our idea, it was easier to persuade others.”
Today the Trust’s lab is in full swing and the business developing plans that include a distance learning qualification for closed prisons, an optical lab actually inside an open one and expansion of the retail customer side through Just Specs.
Creating a business from scratch alone is never easy, neither is breaking into regimented structures as entrepreneur, but pulling that off with the prison system is by any measure a tremendous feat.
“Had my father not gone to prison I would never have thought of this,” he says. “Now my motivation is to make an impact on society and create contributors.”
The Prison Opticians Trust is also part of a growing initiative being put together by The Traverse Trust to inspire and inform businesses about employing those with convictions. The Exceptionals website, www.theexceptionals.org lists some 20 organisations that recruit, train and employ offenders. Research from Traverse shows employment reduces an offender’s chance of falling off the rails by 59 percent.
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