Martin Whittaker visits a prison where the inmates are building a business in fine furniture decoration using traditional skills
OSCAR is busy finishing off a nest of tables, inlaying the tops with satinwood and rosewood veneer. The quality of workmanship is high - and it needs to be. This piece of reproduction furniture will sell for around Pounds 500.
Across the way, Chris is glueing strips of walnut along the edge of a dining table. There are other pieces here - a cylinder bureau in the Sheraton style, veneered in yew, a bow-fronted chest of drawers, a child's bed depicting a classic Ferrari racing car.
This group of craftsmen is about to go into business, finishing 17th and 18th-century reproduction furniture with their own designs. They have the skills and they have a ready market for their work. But they will probably never meet their customers - Oscar, Chris and the others are all inmates at Her Majesty's Prison Channings Wood in Devon.
The venture began as a collaboration between the category C prison's education department and local furniture-makers, Brights of Nettlebed.
The company's managing director, Robert Stamp, was visiting when he saw an inmate carving chess pieces from soap. "These were so intricate in detail, it alerted me to the potential talent that was available," he said.
The prison's education co-ordinator, Chris Brimecombe, realised they could tap into traditional prisoners' skills, while giving the inmates new training opportunities. "All prisoners make their own tobacco boxes," he said.
"They all decorate their own cigarette lighters. And they all do match modelling. Those are traditional prison crafts. One of the things this project offers is to take those skills and show them how to make something marketable. "
Under the scheme, hand-built furniture is brought into the workshops for fine decorative finishing, whether painting, inlaying, veneering or polishing. Inmates found to have appropriate skills and enthusiasm are encouraged to join and develop them or learn new ones. The pieces then return to Brights for sale.
The inmates decide on the designs they will use and research them meticulously. And they are encouraged to develop an "employment plan" to prepare for their release.
In the workshop, 28-year-old Chris enthuses about the project. He has been in prison for two years and three months but is due for release early next year.
"You can lose yourself in your work," he said. "It's not repetitive. I might be doing this one day, and working on something else the next. My job on the outside was doing flooring. Really, this is just adding another craft to that."
In the nearby paint workshop, Dean, 31, is painting his own intricate designs on a chest of drawers. He is the project's art co-ordinator. What did he do before prison?
"I've never had a job," he pauses and laughs. "Burglar, I suppose. I had a drink problem - it always gets the better of me and then I'm breaking the law."
When he gets out next year, there's a job waiting for him at Brights, painting their classical designs. "At the moment I help select ideas for the different pieces of furniture. Some are made up by myself."
He points to one depicting Greek gods. "That came out of a book from the Victoria Albert museum. We do a lot of co-ordinating with them.
"We do it by letter, by telephone. And the staff at Brights of Nettlebed fish information out and bring it back for us to put together."
The project has just begun running as a business in its own right, buying in pieces of unfinished furniture and selling them back decorated.
Inevitably there are hurdles, the main one being security. Exactly how the inmates will interact with their customers has still to be finalised. And then there's the issue of what happens to the profits, should they make any. The inmates cannot benefit above their Pounds 16 per week prison wages.
Mr Brimecombe said: "The pledge is that any money will be ploughed back, first into the project itself to better equip it, and second into the education department in general.
"But if it becomes so successful that we are making huge sums of money, somebody is going to say something. Because we are Government-funded we are very closely monitored and supervised. If suddenly someone sees that we're making this massive profit, we're going to have to justify it."
Nationally there are nearly 9,000 inmates doing industrial work linked to some form of on-the-job training, and another 1,300 doing farm work, though schemes involving manufacturing or craftsmanship such as that at Channings Wood are unusual.
Bernard Feist, head of enterprises and supply in the Prison Service, said the collaboration of private companies in prison training is on the increase. "It's an area that's developing. It's something we are pushing and have been pushing for three or four years.
"Although we do NVQ certification, the main reason for us to be there is to provide the work ethic. And it's all about learning the pecking order, working with colleagues, understanding really that there is a social side and social skills required for work. A lot of the people we're taking on haven't got those sorts of skills."
Mr Brimecombe says he's seen enormous changes in the inmates on the Channings Wood furniture project.
"Look at DeanIwhen he joined us he had a fairly massive drugs problem. When he was outside he had an alcohol problem. Over the first couple of months we had substantial ups and downs with him.
"Several times he was going to throw in the towel. It was exploitation. There was nothing in it for him.
"Now all that side of him has gone. He's gained self-esteem and confidence. He knows that now there's an opportunity for him in life. He's actually got a job - for an inmate that's a huge bonus."