A Second Chance Would Be a Fine Thing

23rd August 2019

At a time when nearly half of all prisoners reoffend within a year of release, Kathy Walton talks to The Clink and COOK, two organisations successfully using culinary skills to break the cycle of unemployment, crime and prison…

Doing porridge may be popular slang for spending time in prison, but for some convicted felons, a bowl of warm oats is the very last thing on the menu. Instead, ex-offenders on two rehabilitation schemes are creating gourmet dishes that not only grace the finest dinner tables but also help keep the cooks out of jail.

“All I wanted to do was nip over for lunch,” said the late Michael Winner of his meal in High Down prison, Surrey in 2009. To his frustration, the prison authorities insisted he leave his mobile phone at home and asked for two week’s notice of his arrival in order to run a security check.

Prison food was an odd choice for the notoriously unforgiving restaurant critic and film maker. Winner had been persuaded to dine at the then recently opened The Clink restaurant (run by inmates in HMP High Down) by former Cabinet Minister Jonathan Aitken, who was himself jailed for perjury in 1999. “If it’s as hard to get out of as it is to get in, Clink must be the most secure place on the planet,” said Winner.

During his time as a reviewer for the Sunday Times, Winner was known for taking no prisoners if a meal didn’t cut the mustard, but he was sufficiently impressed by The Clink to write a glowing account, spicing up his review with quips such as ‘a meal that’s a steal’ and ‘banged up and mash’. (Taking a similar tone, Times journalist Giles Coren raved about his meal at The Clink in 2016 and with a nod towards a certain prison movie, described his experience as ‘Lamb Shank Redemption.’)

The Clink charity, founded in 2009, trains prisoners in every aspect of the restaurant trade – from washing up and chopping vegetables to sauce-making, serving customers and even cake decoration. For obvious reasons, there is no wine on the menu, just ‘mocktails’, and the cutlery is plastic, but the results for those who work there are remarkable, as The Clink CEO Chris Moore explains:
“The Clink changes attitudes, transforms lives and creates second chances. The great thing about the items on our menus is that they are there for a reason. The skills that trainees need to make [for example] pasta or fillet fish go towards their units for achieving City and Guilds NVQ Level 2 in food preparation and cookery.”

There are no bars to success; one Clink graduate made it onto C4’s Bake-Off: The Professionals; every one of The Clink’s four restaurants (in HMP Brixton, Styal, Cardiff and High Down) has achieved the No 1 slot on Trip Advisor in the past 12 months; and the training programme has been shown to reduce re-offending by 49.6%.

Since 2009, The Clink has produced 1800 graduates who currently work for more than 280 employers, some of them very high profile, as Chris Moore explains: “It’s great when you walk into a 5 star hotel or Michelin starred restaurant and see a Clink graduate in action.”

One grad, who was released from Surrey’s HMP Downview earlier this year and who prefers not to give her name, had never worked before being sentenced. Now hoping to become a commis chef, she can’t speak highly enough of the impact that The Clink has had on her life.

“I definitely know that I’m not going to reoffend,” she says. “I had no cooking skills before. I have also learned how to work in a team, which I hadn’t experienced before. I am now confident that I could work in a restaurant kitchen.”

Another scheme that is great at unlocking human potential is the Raw (Ready and Working) Talent programme, run by COOK, the frozen meal producer that was founded in 1992 with a mission to create dishes that taste like homemade.

For four years, Raw Talent has been employing 72 people who had either a criminal conviction or who had been unemployed for a long time. Many of these recruits started their training with Raw Talent while they were still inside, taking the prison minibus each day from Standford Hill open prison in Sheerness to COOK’s HQ in Sittingbourne.

COOK has consistently made the Sunday Times list of Best Companies To Work For and in 2013 became one of the first British companies to join B Corps, a global movement committed to a better way of doing business, of which Raw Talent is a vital ingredient, as the programme’s manager Annie Gale explains.

“It’s my dream job!” she says. “I find it a genuine joy and privilege to be part of the journey for someone who’s turning their life around and pulling themselves out of a pit.”

Annie explains that Raw Talent helps offenders stop the revolving door of criminal conviction and unemployment by providing them with training and a ‘buddy’ as a mentor. “A job helps them pay the bills, get a roof over their head and gives them as sense of purpose. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?” she asks.

Of the many uplifting testimonies to COOK’s credit, one story really stands out. One guy, formerly known as ‘Red’, first went inside at 15. On leaving prison for the last time at 31, he volunteered with the Caring Hands charity in Chatham, who referred him to COOK for a job as a kitchen hand.

Now 38, ‘Red’ has reverted to his real name of John and is a reformed character: off drugs, happily married with a child he can support, and carving out a niche for himself in COOK’s main office and as a prison visitor on the Raw Talent advocacy scheme.

“I didn’t think they’d let me in,” John says of his first visit to one of his former ‘homes’, HMP Elmley. “All the officers flocked to see me. They couldn’t believe the transformation in me after four years with COOK.”

One prisoner broke down in tears; even the incredulous governor was brought out to see him. “He had to be reminded who I was because I looked brand new,” says John. “He even shook my hand!”

However, no one is more delighted by John’s turnaround than Craig, the COOK manager who interviewed him. Thinking he’d seen John somewhere before, Craig realised that several years earlier, John, as ‘Red’, had brutally assaulted him in a street brawl.

Instead of dismissing him though, Craig resolved to give John a second chance and took him on. Four years later, the pair are now the best of friends, with Craig describing working with his former assailant as a privilege. “It’s touching to see the change in him,” he says of John.

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