The words of two ex-crims helped in the prison system to become employable on the outside brought down the house at a Corrections' Regional Engagement Forum in Whangārei.
A strong force of people — including Minister for Corrections Kelvin Davis, National Corrections Commissioner Rachel Leota, other top Corrections staff, Ministry of Social Development, NorthTec, business leaders and rugby league coaching legend Graham Lowe — gave a standing ovation after the young Whangārei men talked about coming out from behind bars and into real work.
The men were introduced as proof of the success for integrated support that continued outside Corrections' walls to a point where ex-offenders were ready, willing and able to take on real employment.
Davis began his address with a quote he attributed to celebrated Kiwi chef Martin Bosley, who oversees pre-release chef and hospitality training at Rimutaka Prison.
''We can't keep judging people by the worst mistake they've ever made.''
Davis said Corrections' partnerships with employers have helped place more than 1500 offenders into work.
He acknowledged the successful 21 month collaboration through the This Way For Work pilot programme which uses Corrections recruitment specialists.
"I know it can be a big ask for employers to give someone with a criminal conviction another chance, but the reality is that we need employers to take that chance if we're going to successfully reintegrate offenders,'' Davis said.
"At the same time, employers are able to access a trained and motivated workforce and receive ongoing support from Corrections. It's win-win really.
"For many of these people, this will be the first time they've held down a proper job. We shouldn't underestimate how much of a difference that makes.''
Lowe talked about his mentoring and education programme, Kick for the Seagulls, held in two Northern Region prisons, at Wiri and Ngawha.
The name refers to how gulls hang around the end of the sports field where the opportunities are, and the lessons use sports language as a teaching tool.
Lowe urged employers to trust people who were trying to turning their lives around. He said he wanted those bosses to see what he saw from every prisoner in his programme: ''Hope.''
''I see men, I don't see prisoners. I see men who need opportunities.''
Michael Thompson and Magness McCann say prison gave them a work focus that changed their lives.
They are both in apprenticeships with big companies in Whangārei, McCann as a carpenter and Thompson as a water technician.
At yesterday's Corrections' and employment forum, the men said being able to achieve NCEA levels while inside was the clincher to finding success on the outside.
The NCEA passes were the first education qualifications either had ever achieved — but on their own they were not enough.
"[In prison] my plan began and ended with knowing I needed employment to turn my life around," Thompson told the audience of about 120 people.
"But leaving prison did not mean leaving the stigmatisation of being an ex-offender."
Recruitment support from Corrections put him in a pre-employment course that gave him confidence and a slight edge.
Thompson thanked his boss, Neil Cherry, for giving him the labouring job that allowed him to prove himself and led to his apprenticeship.
"I've learnt about pipes, fittings, hydrants and a hell of a lot about digging, but I've also learnt to never give up on yourself."
Thompson thanked everyone, including his grandparents who were present, ''who never turned their backs on me as much as I turned my back on myself'.'
Construction company owner Steve Bowling said it was obvious very quickly that the ex-offender he took on, Magness McCann, "had far more capability than just labouring".
He had the right attitude, was a hard worker, keen, punctual and drug-free, Bowling said.
Bowling advised other employers to consider any prospective worker who ticked the criminal record box on an employment form.
"Magness has been a real success for us, he's got a good future in our company."
McCann said when he ended up in jail he knew there was a choice of only two directions; the good or bad.
Taking the right path, he completed Level 4 forestry and carpentry courses, and did art courses. Back on the outside, Corrections helped recruit him into work.
"I'm so grateful for where I am now," McCann said. "Thank you to everybody who hears us out without judging us. Everyone deserves a second chance."