Inmates' great kitchen escape

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Plumbing and decorating skills give prisoners a way out of the cycle of crime. Martin Whittaker reports

Dean has seen a few changes since his first stay on remand at Reading young offender institution three years ago. What used to be a recreation room has been transformed into classrooms and purpose-built workshops. He and fellow inmates used to go there to play pool during a break from their cells - but now they are gaining skills to help them get jobs.

When the 20-year-old is freed in April, he hopes to work as a painter and decorator. His chances been boosted by a kitchen-fitting course giving him basic training and qualifications.

"It's helped me a lot really because the last time I was in here, I didn't cope with it well at all," he said. "But this time I've got on this course and got a few mates. And it's given me formal qualifications to show employers."

This vocational course at the Reading young offender institution features in a new publication called Just Learning? Case studies in improving offender education and training, from the Learning and Skills Development Agency and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

The project was commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills to develop a bank of case studies of "promising practice" in learning across prisons, young offender institutions and probation services.

From April, the publication will be available through the new Quality Improvement Agency's "one-stop shop" of resources for providers. The Government has put a commitment to improve the skills of offenders at the heart of its bid to cut re-offending rates. The prison service has been set a target of reducing offending by 5 per cent by 20078, rising to 10 per cent by the end of the decade.

Reading's young offender institution is housed in the town's austere Victorian jail, whose most celebrated resident was Oscar Wilde. Its vocational training centre was the brainchild of prison officers Marcus Gale and Tony Stokes. Although courses were already available to offenders, there was no progression to employment.

Mr Gale, a former painter and decorator, is now a course instructor. "I used to sit in a corner and just watch lads playing pool and table tennis,"

he said. "They used to come in for an hour and then go back in their cells.

Where's that going to get a lad? He's just going to go out of here and re-offend."

The purpose-built training centre opened two years ago with pound;500,000 in DfES funding. Mr Gale and Mr Stokes had no teaching experience and had to design courses from scratch. Their "Plan-a-Kitchen" programme is designed to suit all prisoners, particularly those only staying for a short time on remand - the course lasts just four weeks. While gaining practical skills such as plumbing, carpentry and decorating, offenders also gain level 1 key skills qualifications. The course also awards them the construction skills certification scheme card - a health and safety standard in the building industry.

So far, 80 offenders have achieved qualifications and some have moved on to work as kitchen-fitters or in related areas such as plumbing and decorating. The prison has strong links with Reading college, and inmates towards the end of their sentences can go on day release to local companies.

The Reading institution now aims to set up a catering academy, providing qualifications at level 1 and 2 (GCSE-equivalent).

Mr Gale said: "I get job satisfaction now. Rather than locking doors and solving day-to-day problems, I feel I'm not only helping here, I'm helping people outside in the community.

"If we get only one lad going out who's not going to re-offend, I feel it's working."

Another prison featured in the new guide is Huntercombe young offender institution in Nuffield, Oxfordshire, which set up a radio station to help inmates gain qualifications.

As well as a means of broadcasting information, the station offers a training programme offering Open College Network qualifications at levels 1 and 2 in radio production, digital music production and DJ-ing. The course has literacy and numeracy learning built in, and tries to address behaviour likely to land young people in trouble.

The institution's learning and skills manager Stieve Butler also uses drama to challenge inmates' attitudes to offending. "I'll be realistic and say I don't believe many of them are going to go on and get a job on a radio station," she said. "But all the stuff we do there is constantly challenging their offending behaviour and attitudes, looking at how they can improve their social skills so they can take up a position in the community."

HMP Wandsworth has been encouraging longer-term prisoners to set up social enterprise firms in a bid to change their lives.

In one project inmates founded the Wanno Media Centre, which produces posters, newsletters and other forms of communication within the prison and beyond.

In its first 10 months the media centre completed more than 150 jobs, some of them for outside organisations, and helped inmates gain qualifications up to level 3.

The prison's business studies co-ordinator Dominic Murphy said: "The reward is creating a lively learning environment, which can help deliver enterprise skills and give inmates the chance to maintain working habits over the long haul. You can also have a practical impact on the quality of prison life."



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