Business Behind Bars: Emily O'Brien

Updated: Dec 13, 2019

Emily O'Brien, 30, is a native of Hamilton, Ontario, described her childhood as, by all accounts, normal. She grew up with two sisters and both parents – a stay at home mom and a working father. Like many kids, O'Brien was involved in several activities, from competitive sports to spending time at a family cottage. By all accounts, O'Brien appeared to have a typical childhood and not one stereotypical of an individual who was once incarcerated.

According to O'Brien, her journey to incarceration began during university, wherein she found herself in an environment where she was easily able to make excuses for some developing behaviors. After graduating university and beginning full-time work at a social media business, she found herself living in a, as she described it, party neighborhood, where she began to experiment with drugs. This combination of environment, as well as a non-standard working schedule, led to the ability to regularly party on top of her work.

During this period, O'Brien stated her family split up. Her increasing substance abuse became exacerbated as she continued to search for a way to blunt her emotions. During this period, O'Brien became acquainted with a man through work who offered her a trip which he claimed would help quell some of the pain she had been dealing with. This offer, however, was just a façade to abuse O'Brien’s situation to traffic drugs back into Canada. The scheme did not work, and both O'Brien and the man were both arrested.

O'Brien, in a state of shock and denial regarding her situation, as well as her active role on what had happened, initially challenged the situation. After two-and-a-half years, O'Brien was able to come to terms with herself and her situation, committing herself to a clean, honest lifestyle. This active commitment, as well as advice from an individual who had faced a similar reality, led O'Brien to plead guilty. She was given ten months and was released 3 December 2018.

O'Brien described her prison time as a dichotomous experience between provincial and federal prisons, with the former having awful conditions. Similar to the US system, O'Brien only spent a brief time in the provincial prison before being transferred to the federal prison where the inmates were kept in, as she described it, ‘cottage-like’ holding areas, and eventually, after being transferred to a minimum security facility, an apartment-like complex. After her ten-month stint, O'Brien found herself in the same situation all formerly incarcerated must face: reintegration.

As opposed to many facilities in the US, O'Brien’s environment presented a much more rehabilitative focus. Inmates were given much more space and personal time, which likely helped reduce the amount of violence and confrontation. It was in this peace O'Brien was able to begin focusing much more seriously on her writing. However, drawbacks still existed. There was no regular internet access to aid the incarcerated in finding jobs and groups were specific to people who lived in the same area they went to prison. In fact, according to O'Brien, she was only given internet access within the hour before she left the facility.

After departing the facility, O'Brien spent six months in a halfway house, a process most of her peers also had to do. However, this process still presents a barrier to employment, as many employers that are willing to higher those formerly incarcerated are still unaware the needs of many of these individuals and do not operate on a case-by-case basis, as the halfway house O'Brien stayed at also did not provide internet access to its tenants.

O'Brien took her future and employment into her own hands by starting her own business, Cons and Kernels, – while in prison. The goal of this business was and is also to provide employment to individuals with similar circumstances as well as to provide a means for these individuals to face many of the troubles and challenges they must face and cope with, in order to develop these individuals into, as O'Brien puts it, assets instead of liabilities.

O’Brien’s work, from “Cons and Kernels” to the YouTube series “Criminally Acclaimed,” represents hope, progress, and above all, dedication and determination in a continually unforgiving and unaware society. From her triumphs to her pitfalls, O’Brien’s many-part narrative represents an individual success, but an unrealistic conclusion for the billions of prisoners the world-over. However, just as many of the narratives Chronicled by Forgive Everyone, it is these stories which provide a possibility of a future wherein these intentionally arduous barriers can be reduced, and the many whom continually suffer can find themselves within a reality which is, at the very least, tolerable of their existences.

Forgive Everyone Co. Is dedicated to sharing the stories of formerly and currently incarcerated men and women as well as funding non-profit activism and providing tangible employment opportunities. 20% of the proceeds from every sale are donated to our partnered re-entry non-profits.

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