Yesterday I hosted an event at Roast for a number of ex-offenders. They ranged in age from 16 to 50 but they all had one thing in common they were determined not end up back in prison. A staggering 70% of released prisoners end up back inside primarily because they can’t find a home or a job. I found out later that one of them had slept rough the night before in this freezing weather. With very little in the way of support mechanisms, you can see why that re-offending rate is so high.
The guys I met had all worked in the kitchens of their former prisons and whether they were dishwashers or cooks, they all had skills that people like me are always on the look-out for. Unfortunately the prison services hadn’t sold it to them that way, it was a chore that they had to do. Instead, if the period they spent in the kitchens was seen as a skills-based learning process with NVQ qualifications added in, they would have seen this as a route to a job when released.
When I first visited Wormwood Scrubs last April and spent some time in their kitchens, I met a prisoner who was cooking 200 meals a day and when I asked him what he planned to do when released he said he had no idea. It had never occurred to him that restaurants would take him on and when I offered him a work placement at Roast, a light went on inside him. I’m hoping to get Wormwood Scrubs to pilot a training programme for inmates to learn skills like butchery and baking as these are dying crafts in the catering world.
I took the ex-offenders around Borough Market and it was a revelation for them to see a real tuna, partridges, pheasants, rabbits and geese hanging with all their plumes. They then got to see how our kitchen operates and were shown around by one of our chefs, himself an ex-offender, who told it to them straight: ‘If we offer any of you a job, don’t mess it up. Not many people would give you a chance like that.’
Unfortunately that’s true most employers wouldn’t have given these guys the time of day. But I’m hoping to start a programme to take on some of them on work placements to start with and see how we go. This isn’t just about being nice to people who might have no other opportunities in our industry we are often looking for skilled workers. In future, prisons may have an active role to play in the growth of the hospitality sector.