At the age of 21, Joe Kwon’s life was upended when he was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Growing up in a community where gang culture, violence and substance abuse were endemic, Joe’s fate wasn’t unusual.
Lacking education and family support, Joe had been directionless, but his incarceration proved to be a pivotal moment in his young life.
“I ended up meeting a mentor in jail who helped me change my perception and changed my life,” Joe says.
“He helped me become a better person.”
Joe learned to appreciate the value of education, business, and self-worth, and soon realised that reverting to his former way of life would mean a quick return to prison.
Instead, he channelled his passion for training and fitness to find a new way forward, starting a social enterprise called Confit, to help give young former inmates an alternative to a cycle of crime and jail time.
His concept was to bring together a team of like-minded mentors, to reinforce positive behaviours, encourage a healthier lifestyle, and challenge the negative stereotypes that society holds towards people who have done jail time.
“I thought: I had one mentor that turned my life around – imagine what a team of mentors can do to scale that positive impact, change so many young peoples’ lives and give them the opportunity to do something great,” Joe says.
“We hire formerly incarcerated individuals in Youth Justice Centres to Correctional Centres to be fitness professionals and give back to society, through 9-week training programs based around fitness.”
In fact, Confit’s mission extends well beyond the 9-week program. Joe’s ultimate goal for the not-for-profit is to create an enduring support system through mentors with lived experience in prisons, to help young people follow a positive pathway once they come out of custody.
“We touch on subjects around gratitude, goal setting, being grounded and about self-worth and self-belief. We encourage young people to understand the value of education and employment,” Joe tells Westpac Wire.
Programs Supervisor at Cobhan Youth Justice Centre, Shannon Fitzgerald, says that Confit is one of the best programs the centre has ever had.
“There’s a special connection that’s formed in the Confit sessions. They develop confidence and they’re more respectful. They build a natural rapport with each other from the beginning. Our young people look to them as mentors because they have walked in their shoes before,” Fitzgerald says.
This sentiment is echoed by Confit Pathways Mentor Kyzar, who recently came out of juvenile detention and was one of the program’s first young mentees.
“The common ground and shared experience between mentors and ex-prisoners is what solidifies our bond,” says Kyzar.
Kyzar has made the transition from mentee to mentor at Confit, and will soon embark on a degree at the University of New South Wales.
A report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that among young people aged 10-17 sentenced to juvenile detention between 2000 and 2020, 41 per cent reoffended and returned to prison prior to their 18th birthday. Furthermore, of those who were in community detention and not juvenile detention, 80 per cent returned within 12 months.
These stark numbers are the reason Joe saw an urgent need for change, and his work with Confit saw him recognised as a 2022 Westpac Social Change Fellow.
“We understand the road that they have gone through and the challenges that they will face when they come out,” Joe says.
“We’ve experienced that firsthand and have come out on the other side much better. If they can see someone that’s gone through the justice system, it gives people hope.”
For Joe, keeping fit was the focus he needed to turn his life around, and for the former inmate there’s special meaning in the motto he lives by, “train to be free.”