A couple of years ago at Roast when our chefs took direct ownership of my previous relationship with The Clink restaurant in Brixton Prison, they cranked up our level of engagement by offering inmates day release opportunities to come and see what it’s like working in our kitchen. I was thrilled to hear from our head chef Stuart that one of the prisoners became such a solid backbone of support through our really hectic Christmas period that his colleagues voted him “chef of the year”. The gentleman in question subsequently came to work with us full time when he finished his sentence.
The much vaunted talk of getting prisons to engage with employers so that we can bring people into our workforces to enable them to see there is a life away from crime needs this crucial tool. A report published yesterday by The Prison Reform Trust about this process in Brixton shows just how invaluable it is. A project I chair called Bounce Back has its main base there where prisoners are trained in painting, decorating, scaffolding and dry lining and construction companies line up to offer work opportunities to them.
That all sounds great but Brixton, like every other London prison, has stopped letting prisoners out for day release work opportunities. I’m sure the governors have valid reasons for doing so – it must be a big labour drain for officers to accompany inmates when they come and return from work experiences – but irrespective, we must find ways of encouraging the process to be overturned.
When I met with the Justice Secretary Liz Truss a few months back, I gave her a suggestion which she was seemingly taken with. But not for the first time, I put up a proposal to government which was well received but shelved because an election was subsequently called. Whoever the next Justice Secretary is I hope I have the chance of putting it up again. The idea came to me from a TV series a few years back following one of London’s most run down schools which a trouble shooting headmaster was recruited in to turn around. Pupils went from burning cars and taking drugs and the school became an exemplar model of what proper leadership can achieve and how easily sometimes it can be too.
Every kid at the school was asked by him: “What university are we going to be preparing you for?” Instantly they had the shackles on their aspirations removed and the conversation transformed them.
Prison governors could take that inspirational experience and apply to their inmates. They could ask every new person entering their prison: “What job are we going to prepare you for on release?” and then align them with providers like Bounce Back and The Clink so employers can see a new and credible talent pool. There could be a league to see which prisons perform the best and governors and their teams could be duly rewarded.
The overwhelming majority of prisoners want to work rather than re-offend. Fact. Projects exist that can enable the processes required and employers – especially in London – need more people to grow our businesses. I remember a governor walking me around his prison a couple of years back and him asking me: “Iqbal, how do I ensure that I don’t see these faces again once they’re released?”
Governors need to be engaged in finding ways of opening up the keys to open up the talent.