The Clink charity runs a highly successful restaurant chain, staffed by students who are learning on the job. This in itself isn’t unusual; most colleges offer a public-facing, authentic workplace environment in which to train. But this restaurant chain is not attached to a college group and these are not everyday students. They are prisoners, and the restaurants are located within, or adjacent to, prison walls.
The charity began eight years ago at HMP High Down, a category B men’s prison in Surrey. Catering manager Alberto Crisci saw how engaged the prisoners who worked in the kitchens were. He also saw the skills that they developed during their time there. Yet there was still a cycle of prisoners being released, reoffending and returning to prison.
The reasons were clear; there was a distinct lack of formal qualifications, which made it almost impossible for them to gain employment. Concerned by this, Crisci convinced the governor of HMP High Down at the time to open the restaurant to the public. In partnership with City & Guilds, it developed a qualification framework to meet the prisoners’ specific circumstances.
Now there are four multi-award-winning restaurants, training up to 155 prisoners at a time. The Clink Restaurant at HMP Cardiff is often rated on TripAdvisor as the best restaurant in Cardiff; in 2015 it was named the 10th best restaurant in the UK.
Outside it looks like a depressing industrial block, a stone’s throw from the prison walls, next to the security gates.
Any concerns evaporate as soon as the door opens: elegant decor in neutral colours, a busy open kitchen and an array of waiters, smartly dressed in identical black trousers and dress shirts, hover discreetly. The only clues that this establishment is anything but a high-end eatery are the charity donation envelopes on the tables and the lack of female waiting staff. I am served by a confident and knowledgeable trainee who delivers beautiful food created by colleagues who work in the kitchen under the instruction of the head chef.
The prisoners working in the Cardiff restaurant are from a local category D open prison. They are taken on with a minimum of six months left to serve and a maximum of 18 months, with the breadth and the levels of qualifications in line with their time left inside. Each prisoner trains for 40 hours per week in a range of professional cookery and hospitality qualifications up to level 3.
Everything on the contemporary British menu is made from scratch, including pasta, bread and ice cream, with the majority of ingredients sourced locally. Other Clink projects have been developed from the charity’s focus on sustainability. These include the Clink Gardens at the women’s prison, HMP Send, in Surrey, where inmates cultivate fruit and vegetables for the kitchens with NVQs in horticulture attached. There are also chickens reared for eggs and 12 beehives in which honey is produced to use and sell at the restaurants.
Nationally, 45 per cent of all adult ex-offenders reoffend within the first year of release, according to figures from the Prison Reform Trust. This jumps to 58 per cent for those who serve a sentence of less than 12 months. But for graduates of The Clink’s programme, the rate is currently just 12.5 per cent. So what makes this initiative so successful?
There are five steps to the programme: recruit, train, support, employ and mentor. All of this takes place throughout an active transition to life outside. Once released, the support continues. There are partnerships set up across the country to link the graduates to the jobs they are trained for. In addition to CVs, interview skills and employment networking, there are means to help ex-offenders stay on track such as substance misuse guidance and help with housing and finance.
Jason Lawrence is the general manager at The Clink in Cardiff and has a background in the world of hospitality and training. “We run the restaurant as we would any other and that’s including the training,” he explains. “It gives the guys the people skills and qualifications to go out into the real world.”
Lawrence says that the difference that the interaction with the public makes to the prisoners is swift and substantial. “When they first come to us for induction, their heads are down, there’s no eye contact or conversation,” he says. “Then we see that confidence building every day.”
Such progressive rehabilitation is in line with the current raft of prison reforms planned by the government. And the project has attracted the attention of prisons minister Andrew Selous. “As the prime minister has said, we need a prison system that doesn’t see prisoners as simply liabilities to be managed, but instead as potential assets,” he tells TES.
“Organisations like The Clink provide exactly the kind of meaningful training that gives prisoners a chance to turn their lives around for good through sustained job opportunities when they leave prison,” he adds.
The Clink’s practical approach to rehabilitation is a win-win situation: for the prisoners’ futures, for a safer society and for anyone who has the privilege of dining at the restaurant.
Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands @mrssarahsimons
Confidence to face the world
John, a prisoner taking a fast-tracked NVQ in food and drink service at The Clink, explains how it’s not just the learning and support that is of value but the opportunity to get used to being back in an open community.
“I’d spent two years living in closed conditions, 23 hours a day banged up,” he says. “It’s strange, you lose that normality of interacting with people.”
This proved to be especially unsettling when he went on his first home leave. “I had five days at home and I was ready to come back to prison after three,” John recalls.
But his time spent working with the public at the restaurant – as well as the support network offered by The Clink – has given him confidence in his abilities. “I’m out in two weeks and I feel 100 per cent more ready for it now.
“I came down here just to see what it was like and the amazing support has given me my positivity back. I feel great. Ready to get out and start afresh.”
1. HMP High Down, Surrey
2. HMP Brixton, London
3. HMP Styal, Cheshire
4. HMP Cardiff, South Glamorgan, Wales
The restaurants at HMP Brixton and HMP High Down are located within the prison walls, so a security check must be cleared in advance of a visit. The restaurants at HMP Styal and HMP Cardiff are just outside the prison so no prior security requirements are necessary.