Ross lost his parents at a young age and spent his childhood growing up in residential care. In and out of trouble, he describes himself as “one of those kids that you didn’t want to socialise with or even walk past on the street”. He was sent to a young offender institution at the age of 15 but it didn’t change things. “When I was released I did try to sort myself out,” he says. “I met my partner and had two kids but as they say, old habits die hard and I was in and out of fights, getting into trouble, drinking far too much.”
At age 26, Ross was sentenced to two and a half years at High Down Prison in Surrey. Being away for such a long time from the only positive things he felt he had in his life – his wife and children – made it sink in that he needed to change his life, but he thought it was too late. However, after expressing an interest in joining the prison’s food-service training programme, The Clink, Ross was given a second chance.
Although he only spent the last six months of his sentence in the programme, it was long enough to give Ross the “passion and hunger” he needed to pursue employment in the catering industry. Through The Clink’s mentoring programme, he was supported into a two-year apprenticeship at the Lancaster London Hotel working in the kitchens alongside the executive chef. After this he returned to take up a position within The Clink’s offices.
“Without The Clink I would probably still be in prison now and getting into all sorts of trouble,” he says. “Now, rather than visiting me in prison, my family visit me in my office and see me working very hard. It has changed my life completely.”
A second chance
Ross is one of hundreds of prisoners who have been supported by The Clink to make positive changes in their lives. Set up with the aim of reducing reoffending rates across the UK, the prison-based charity trains inmates in food service, preparation and industrial cleaning during the last six to 18 months of their sentence.
The idea for the programme was born when High Down’s catering manager, Alberto Crisci, spotted an opportunity to train prisoners. He first introduced a City and Guilds qualification to the prison kitchen in 2005, but when the site expanded in 2009 the first Clink restaurant was set up, providing a real training environment for inmates.
Today, The Clink operates seven prison-based projects (with plans to open three more), including restaurants in Cardiff, High Down and Brixton, and has successfully reduced the rate of reoffending among its graduates to just 12.5%. Compare this to a national average of 44% of prisoners reoffending within their first year of release, and it is no mean feat.
“You’ve got this whole group of society just going round and round and The Clink was devised with the sole aim of breaking that cycle,” says Chris Moore, The Clink’s chief executive. “By giving them a sense of purpose, pride and holding their hand, we can make a huge difference.”
Starting from scratch
The training programme involves five stages; the first is to recruit prisoners to take part. The opportunity is advertised in prisoner newspaper, Inside Times, which is distributed through all 119 prisons in the UK every month.
Prisoners must meet criteria to take part, including being in the right security category, which will depend on what prison they are in. At High Down, The Clink works with prisoners in categories B and C. Inmates must also have completed all other restorative courses and have a certain level of ability in reading and writing.
“We will then have a chat with them and what we are wanting to hear is not ‘I’m a chef’, but ‘I’m fed up of being in and out of prison and I want to make a difference to my life,” says Moore. “If we hear something roughly along those lines we will take them on.”
The inmates spend a month with The Clink team as a ‘cool-down’ period to ensure they think they can make it work, and then the catering training begins. It takes between six and 12 months to gain each of the three City and Guilds qualifications (level two in food service, food preparation and industrial cleaning), with the idea being that if prisoners spend the full 18 months in the programme they will learn skills in front and back of house.
“The ethos behind the restaurant is we are doing everything from scratch, whether it be sourdough bread or ice-cream, nothing has been bought in and we only use British produce,” says Moore. “The men are being trained to a very high standard and would fit in to any four or five star establishment or Michelin star restaurant.
“In addition to the academic qualifications and perhaps more importantly is that we are teaching them social skills,” he says. “They are gaining confidence, motivation, pride and they are meeting people from all walks of life from prison staff to the members of the royal family.”
The next step is to work with partner agencies and other departments within the prison to support the prisoners to overcome challenges in their lives. This could involve working with teams from health and social care, education and the chaplaincy and all of the catering courses are tailored to ensure that they meet the needs of individuals.
“Life goes on when you are in prison and the prisoners will get lots of bad news, whether that be that they’ve had their house repossessed or their partner has left them,” says Moore. “We have to work together to support and help them through that.”
For Ross, the support element of the programme proved the most beneficial. “For most prisoners there are lots of courses in prison but when they are released there is nothing there,” he says. “They go to probation, tick a box and then they are left to do exactly what they were doing before they went in.
“With me, the support was key and having someone like Chris around gave me someone to look up to,” he adds. “I try to copy him, rather than copy the people I used to in my previous life.”
Looking to the future
The support element also better prepares prisoners to enter the employment market and this is the focus of the fourth stage of the programme. The Clink now has over 200 employers willing to take on a graduate subject to a satisfactory interview, including Hawksmoor steak restaurant, Jamie’s Italian (Jamie Oliver’s chain) and Wahaca. “These employers have realised that the prisoners in training are just another cross-section of society and they deserve a second chance,” says Moore.
With a range of celebrity chefs involved in the different projects, including Albert Roux and Antonio Carluccio, the prisoners are also getting the opportunity to meet some industry greats who could turn out to be their future employers. “This is a great experience for the men in prison to put on their CV but we also like to think the chefs are talent spotting,” says Moore. “Most of them have employed several of our graduates.”
Meet me at the gate
Finally, each prisoner is assigned a mentor who will support them in preparing for their release from prison, including help writing their CV and disclosure letter as well as finding a job and accommodation.
Employed in full-time roles and fully trained in mentoring by The Clink, the mentors come from a variety of different backgrounds including probation and catering.
On the day of release, the mentor will meet them at the gate, take them to their workplace and then meet them on a weekly basis for a further six to 12 months. “By doing that and making them accountable to us, we are helping them readjust back into society,” says Moore.
“We are there to support them as much as we can because we very much believe that prison is about restoration,” he adds. “If you have come here with lots of issues then hopefully you will go out a better person than when you came in.”
And with 10 programmes producing a total of 500 graduates a year due to be in place by 2017, The Clink looks set to continue changing lives and keeping people out of prison. Even if 10% of these prisoners reoffend, the projects will still have prevented 450 from returning.
As Ross concludes: “When you get to a certain age people might wash their hands of you and say you’ve had your nine lives now that’s it. But The Clink gave me a tenth life and it hasn’t just changed my life, it’s changed my partner’s and kids’ life too.
“My son probably used to look up at me and think ‘my dad’s been to prison that’s what I’m going to do’. Hopefully now I’ve changed his perspective.”