Hollywood loves a redemption story and anti-heroes are de rigueur, but what if your life was like a movie? What if your life was the redemption arc? That’s what happened to Emily O’Brien who was arrested in 2016 at the age of 26 for drug smuggling. O’Brien pleaded guilty and was handed the federal mandatory minimum for trafficking—four years in a federal institution.
Fortunately for her, she ended up serving less than a year in prison before being granted day parole, a type of conditional release that allows offenders the opportunity to participate in community activities. But O’Brien’s redemption arc started before she even went to prison.
Between her sentencing and her reporting to prison, O’Brien was on house arrest for two-and-a-half years, a period of self-reflection and making amends with loved ones. Having pleaded guilty, O’Brien was willing to take responsibility for her actions and decided that she wanted to turn her experience into something positive, she just didn’t know how.
The idea for Cons & Kernals, now Comeback Snacks, came to O’Brien once she was inside the institution. “[On the inside] we talked a lot over food and popcorn was a popular prison snack,” says O’Brien. “It was during the 2018 Super Bowl when we put different combinations of spices on the popcorn and one combination—lemon pepper dill—was so good. Combining the creativity of the popcorn flavours and the community inside, I asked a friend of mine on the outside if I should create a popcorn company and turn it into a social enterprise.”
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Comeback Snacks has four key buckets that contribute to its identity as a social enterprise: raising awareness of the importance of providing opportunities for those with criminal histories, challenging business leaders to hire more people with criminal backgrounds, hiring people with criminal backgrounds or helping them find employment, and making charitable donations to organizations that support reintegration programs, prison reform, and recidivism reduction.
“I’ve always had this entrepreneurial side to me; if I’m going to build and fight for something, I can use that energy to fight for something good,” she said about creating a social enterprise.
These pillars are closely aligned with empirical evidence showing that strong support networks and employment opportunities help reduce reoffending. O’Brien acknowledges that she left prison in a privileged position, “I think the fact that I’ve had the resources of the community, and the support of the community was essential for building Comeback Snacks and building myself.”
O’Brien’s experience changed her perspective of the criminal justice system. “I can definitely say that it taught me a lot about people and how people end up in prison; it also helped me understand why it’s so hard to have a happy, successful, law abiding life for so many people when they don’t have [employment and support networks] in place. […] There are a lot of parts of the system that really don’t serve anyone and don’t help make the community safer. It doesn’t help people reinvent themselves necessarily because it’s very hard.”