The last glimpse of freedom Joe Kwon saw before he was arrested for running a drug syndicate was the iconic Sydney Harbour.
It was 2007. Kwon had turned 21 just weeks before and was staying in the executive suite of the luxury Shangri-La Hotel at Circular Quay.
He had just completed a drug deal.
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Unbeknown to him, Kwon had been surveilled for months and police were waiting in the hotel room next door for the perfect opportunity to get him.
That came after he ordered room service — a big breakfast, a long black and an orange juice.
“I get a knock on the door and I’m thinking that, obviously, it was room service,” Kwon said.
Instead, tactical response officers, dressed in all black, broke down the door.
“The first thought was I’m getting robbed. I never thought it was police because that wasn’t a thought that I ever had,” he said.
Kwon in prison in 2012. Credit: Supplied
As he was being arrested, Kwon looked out and saw the Opera House — a place his mother, who was an opera singer, would take him as a child.
“It just made me realise how much I took things for granted … but I guess it was a bit too late when I got arrested.”
Kwon was eventually sentenced to 13 years in prison, with a non-parole period of nine years, for two counts of supplying a commercial quantity of MDMA.
He spent almost all his 20s in prison, shut off from the rest of the world.
While serving his time, Kwon decided to become a career criminal — before he changed his mind and decided he would, in fact, go the other way.
Since leaving prison, Kwon has attended university and founded Confit — a gym and pathways program that provides mentoring for incarcerated youth and former prisoners.
Kwon grew up in Sydney’s southwest in the 1990s to a single mum who came to Australia as an international student.
At the time, the people in the area where he lived were a “mixed bunch”, he said.
As an only child without a father figure and with his mum busy working and studying, Kwon was left to his own devices.
“I was out and about a lot rather than being at home by myself and then I got mixed in with the local crowd,” he said.
“I was always looking up to the older guys in the street.”
Kwon first joined a gang in Year 7 and ended up dropping out of school.
“It wasn’t the crime that actually got me. It was more that belonging, and crime was always that by-factor of wanting to belong to a community because I never felt accepted at school,” he said.
“But I was always feeling accepted in that gang culture.
“They were always good to me. They looked after me.”
Kwon in prison in 2014. Credit: Supplied
Initially, Kwon was assigned small tasks — mainly dropping off and picking up drugs.
But by the age of 21, after setting out on his own, Kwon was running his own syndicate with lower level members doing his dirty work for him.
At the time, he knew there were other options to make a living but he never felt they were within arms’ reach for him.
“I saw people doing other things but I never believed that I could do it because I believed that I was dealt a different hand,” he said.
“The people who were around me were all doing this kind of stuff.
“I knew there were other opportunities, but … I never had that support network.”
Prison was like the ocean, Kwon said.
“One moment it’s calm, the next moment it can be mayhem,” he said.
Behind bars, Kwon mostly kept to himself and to his prison community — the gym guys.
They were always the positive ones, he said.
“(They are) the only guys that are in there laughing every day because … training brings out a lot of endorphins,” he said.
“I know prison shouldn’t be a good time but it does build that camaraderie and you try to make the best out of the worst situation.”
The group didn’t have a gym behind bars. They didn’t even have weights.
So they improvised by filling up water battles, garbage bags and laundry detergent bottles with water to make their own weights.
The most difficult thing about prison was the mental strain, Kwon said.
From 3pm to 8am, cell doors are closed and inmates have nowhere to go.
“You’re literally just stuck in there with your thoughts … and your thoughts can go really negative,” he said.
When he first arrived in prison, Kwon decided he would become a career criminal.
“I was like, this is my life. If I’m going to be a criminal … I might as well be the best. This is the only world that I know,” he said.
“I might as well be the best at it and just network.”
But as the years went by in prison, Kwon began to realise how “ugly and cut-throat” that life is.
“It was kind of sad because all the people I saw who were in ‘the game’ were people like me. A lot of people came from disadvantage. A lot of people had major trauma,” he said.
“It was about halfway into my sentence when I realised this, and I was like … maybe I want to try something different.
“I wanted to have a better life for myself.”
Fitness gave Kwon a sense of purpose. Credit: Supplied
While serving his time, Kwon completed his high school certificate and ended up being accepted to the University of NSW.
“It was that moment when I went … I could do this,” he said.
“It was the education that kind of gave me that hope and it pretty much set me free.”
On the other side of the barbed wire, when he was released from prison, Kwon worked in construction for two months, before eventually starting a degree in commerce.
But having missed the technological boom of the 2010s, he had to learn a lot — including how to use a smartphone and setting up an email address.
“I didn’t even know what an app was until I came out. I didn’t get the concept of it,” he said.
“The technology was one of the biggest shocks to me.”
Convict + fitness
Having been a gym guy behind bars, Kwon then put his knowledge to use for some extra cash while he was studying and set up a boot camp.
As his side hustle grew, he decided he wanted to do something more for people like himself — an ex-convict who found a sense of purpose in fitness.
He then founded Confit, a gym and pathways program to help prisoners find their feet with education and employment opportunities once they are released from prison.
All the trainers and mentors Kwon employs are ex-convicts who took the same path he did.
The program mentors incarcerated youth and provides a non-judgmental space for ex-convicts.
Confit is in the process of opening its first gym in Parramatta in Sydney’s west.
Kwon and the Confit team. Credit: Supplied
“This gym is a platform to bridge that social gap,” he said.
“All the trainers are former inmates who’ve turned their lives around.
“They’ve all hit rock bottom … and they’re giving back to society through fitness.”
Kwon hopes Confit helps former inmates reintegrate back into society and stay out of prison.
“In every inmate’s life, there are these moments where they’re like, ‘I want to do something different’ … but that support’s never there,” he said.
“There’s a lot of these service-based organisations that exist to look after these people, but there’s never a community that helps to lead them there.”
Kwon hopes Confit will be that missing link.
Message to others
While he was in “the game” as a “young and naive” man, Kwon never thought he would get caught.
“You always hear about people getting arrested around you … you’re always told to be cautious,” he said.
“But I never thought I’m going to get done.
“That was such a foolish way of thinking as well, because everyone gets done in the game … at some point they all come undone.
“Something really bad happens to them physically or they end up in jail.”
His message to other boys and young men who are in gangs, or considering that life, is that it is not worth it.
Confit mentors work with incarcerated youth. Credit: Supplied
“Most of these guys join a gang because that’s the only way they believe they can make money,” he said.
“If that’s not why you’re being a gangster, then you’re just a thug.
“But one thing that I was told was even when I was in the game is there’s more money to be made in the legitimate world than in the criminal world.”
Kwon said anyone considering a life of crime should open their mind to different things outside their circle.
“Look outside your immediate circle because there are more opportunities and go for those opportunities and build yourself up to be able to go for those opportunities,” he said.
Kwon added although there was a sense of camaraderie within the gangs he was a part of “you could get that same sense of camaraderie elsewhere with other boys”.
“It doesn’t have to be a gang,” he said.
“I used to follow these guys and I realised nothing good comes out of this.
“The real brothers weren’t actually even there for you when you were in time of need when I was in jail.”
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