The writer Samantha Everett spent a day at Brixton prison investigating what’s being done to rehabilitate inmates. But inside the bleak exterior she found a colourful surprise – a fully furnished restaurant.
The waiter asked: “Would you like any drinks?” He was dressed in trousers and a smart shirt. His mouth twitched into a small smile and he leaned over the table to pour water into a glass. The restaurant itself was filled with highly polished glass tables surrounded by black leather chairs. Coffee coloured walls and soft lighting spilled across the room. Sounds like an upmarket restaurant doesn’t it? Except for the fact the cutlery was made of plastic, and it was in the middle of a prison.
Brixton prison to be precise. The waiter’s name was James* and he’s an inmate. As part of a scheme run by the Clink charity, inmates can apply to work in the restaurant either cooking or waiting on members of the public. It’s funded entirely by donations and charitable trusts. Mark Woodruff is the trust executive of one of these – the Monument Trust. He believes the scheme gives people a second chance. “Everyone can make a mistake,” he urges. “Everyone that’s in the prison is someone’s family or neighbour. Some of them were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Everyone that’s in the prison is someone’s family or neighbour. Some of them were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
One of the most common reasons prisoners reoffend is because they can’t find a job once they leave. The scheme aims to prevent this by rehabilitating inmates and currently has an 87.5% success rate at reducing reoffending.
Working in partnership with Her Majesty’s Prison the Clink currently has four restaurants across the country: in Brixton, Cardiff, High Down and Styal. Mark emphasised that the scheme allows them to develop both practical and soft skills through interacting with the public. “Meeting you in a normal way gives them hope. It gives them a sense of identity. It gives them a memory they can hold on to. You lose all that if you keep everybody in separate pens.”
It gives them a sense of identity. It gives them a memory they can hold on to. You lose all that if you keep everybody in separate pens.
Upon arriving it takes almost half an hour to actually reach the premises. “No phones, keys, tablets, chewing gum, memory sticks, aerosols…” and about twenty other items the receptionist listed were prohibited. After showing photo ID thick iron gates at the entrance to the prison are unlocked. An employee then escorts everyone to the restaurant where the inmates greet you.
After being taken to one side, James twiddled his right thumb around his left. His head was bowed down to the ground and his left leg was shaking. Hesitantly he explained he’s been a waiter at the restaurant for two months now. “You miss your family. That’s the worst part,” he said. “I found it hard at first just because it’s a completely different environment being confined in a small space.” Through working in the restaurant James not only gets to escape this, but he also gains experience in the industry and gets a recognised qualification: a level two NVQ in Food and Beverage Service.
Doing so has secured James a job when he leaves the prison in a few months time. “I’ve already got my job placement. I’m going back home to be a waiter, it’s allowed me to expand my knowledge, to be able to go to different places.” Not only has the scheme got James a job, but also it was the reason his application for early release was accepted.
Gesturing to the menus James asked if everybody was ready to order. Fifteen minutes later he brought over the main course – confit chicken, fondant potatoes and carrots. He works and trains 40 hours a week, all under the supervision of the restaurant manager Jonathan Kent. Jonathan explained that the inmates are collected from their cells from half past seven; they prepare everything until half past ten before a briefing and a staff lunch. Then service runs from around midday until three in the afternoon. “It’s a charity that’s helped people turn their lives around,” he said.
With 42.5% of prisoners reoffending within a year of being released the Clink charity decided something needed to be done. “It gives them the opportunity to develop people skills. The guys feel proud working here.” Jonathan said.
The emphasis is on making prison a “useful place not a destructive one” Jonathan added. “These people are our responsibility so why not do it in a positive way – in a way that contributes to their hopes and aspirations.” And what about the Clink’s aspirations?
The charity aims to train 500 inmates a year, with an additional three restaurants to be built by the end of 2017. But this can only happen with the help of donations and trusts like the one Mark represents. “They will earn, they will pay tax, they will make your visit to central London great. They won’t be grumpy and sullen because they value the job. You’d want these people in your work place because they’re good at it,” Mark concluded with.
They will earn, they will pay tax, they will make your visit to central London great.
After dessert – chocolate crème brulee and chilli popcorn – James cleared away the plates. With only a few months left he expressed his excitement at going home. “I can’t wait to drive my car. To be at home, sleep on a bed, see my family.” With a small wave goodbye everyone was escorted out of the prison. James then cleared up the restaurant and was taken back to his cell, to do it all again tomorrow.
But that’s not all. The Clink is just one of several schemes aimed at rehabilitating prisoners. In fact Brixton prison is also home to the National Prison Radio – a radio station made by prisoners, for prisoners. Research shows that having family ties can reduce the likelihood of reoffending by up to 39%. The station allows family and friends to send in messages of love and support. In addition to this it gives inmates the opportunity to develop a skill, and possibly a profession.
Airing 24 hours a day the station works in collaboration with Feltham prison dividing the content between them. Andrew Wilkie, the Director of Radio and Operations, explained that it’s a mixture of inmates and professionals that create the show. “They have trained and they have put in the hours behind the microphone. One of our ex-prisoners went on to present a documentary on Channel 4 about our work here.” With almost 80,000 listeners across the country it’s helped to reduce the amount of suicides, supporting the inmates throughout their incarceration.
From schemes involving cooking and radio to art and construction the focus has shifted from punishing convicts to rehabilitating them. Because like Andrew said: “When they’re in here nobody wants to come back. Working in here can be a life changing experience. And if they can see a future, they won’t reoffend.”
*Name changed for confidentiality