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Crumbling Britain: Inmates and customers lose “lifeline” as prison café closes

Another blow to rehabilitation of the prison population.

Early on a sunny Friday morning in Norwich, customers headed as usual to Café Britannia, a café run by prisoners and ex-offenders on the grand redbrick premises of HMP Norwich. But there wasn’t even any milk left for a cup of tea.

After wrangling with the social enterprise running the café, the Ministry of Justice had ordered its closure. Norwich residents heard the news on Thursday, and the café affectionately nicknamed by some as “The Prison” ceased trading the following day.

Café Britannia opened five years ago, staffed mainly by ex-offenders and prisoners serving the end of their sentences in the “resettlement” part of the prison called Britannia House, hence the café’s name.

Run by a business called Britannia Enterprises, which owns establishments in other parts of the East Anglian city, the café was much-loved by locals. Two petitions with nearly 10,000 signatories combined are doing the rounds, and a Facebook page to “Save Café Britannia” has over a thousand members.

“I’d come for lunches at the weekends, late evenings, I’m a coffee addict so I’d usually come here to grab a coffee after a run or walk on the heath – it’s so convenient, and the view is amazing,” says Gemma Johnston, a 34-year-old business analyst for a data company in Norwich who was born and brought up in the city.

“And I once had the biggest salad I’ve ever had here,” she laughs. “I think there was a whole block of feta on it… The food was hearty, what you’d get in any good quality café.”

As a regular, she is behind one of the petitions to save it from closure. We meet on the heath with a view of Norwich Cathedral’s spire in front of the closed café, speckled with empty garden chairs leaning against tables on the terrace.

“It’s a big loss to the community as a place to socialise and meet – it was such a mix of people, all different ages and backgrounds; I’d just as much expect a Jaguar to pull up in the carpark as a beat-up van driving over after work,” she says.

“But it’s also a big loss to the prison, the inmates, the ex-inmates – for the jobs, the security, the network it provides.It’s a lifeline, the opportunity to stand on your own two feet.”

Disappointed customers come and go, and the prison staff linger on the premises.

“For any normal kind of person, this is a normal kind of job, but for us it’s a big bridge to connect with society,” says a 30-year-old ex-offender who has worked at the café for over three and a half years, and would rather not be named.

“It doesn’t require a lot of skill but for prisoners who struggle to read, struggle to communicate, they get their confidence back.”

For 18 months, he worked at the café as an inmate, and was released in 2017 after a three-year sentence. “After that I had a pay rise, I was promoted, I learned how to run my own business,” he tells me with pride. “It’s not just serving in a caf, for us it’s probably the only option to get back into society – it’s the first contact with society.”

Without the café, he believes “people will struggle to find a job, and people will reoffend” – what he describes as “going over the walls”.

Indeed, according to Ministry of Justice research, time spent working in the community before release significantly reduces the chance a prisoner will reoffend. So set-ups like Café Britannia, the Clink restaurant in Brixton, the Jailhouse Café in Dorset and Redemption Roasters coffee houses across various sites, can help cut the £15bn yearly cost of reoffending.

So why is it closing? The answer is far from simply the government’s whim to take back a valuable building. Britannia Enterprises appears to have been struggling, owing £384,000 to creditors in 2017 and facing a fraud investigation at the café dating back to 2018 (unrelated to the current closure).

One of its other cafés, Park Britannia, which isn’t run on prison premises, was also due to close on Friday but was saved last-minute by a deal with Norwich City Council.

I contacted the company but haven’t heard back. Its head, Davina Tanner, has however told the local Eastern Daily Press that she invested more than £100,000 of her own money into the business, hasn’t drawn a salary from it in two years and intends to pay back debts. She also claims the MoJ’s request to leave the site meant she had to reject another investor who wanted to come on board.

As a community interest company (a CIC), Britannia Enterprises is expected to reinvest money for the prison and community’s benefit, but it appears this has not been satisfactory.

“I’m as disappointed as anyone that Café Britannia is having to close, I know how popular it has been in recent years,” commented Declan Moore, governor of HMP Norwich.

“Unfortunately the building requires significant investment and, as the Prison Service receives no money from the café, it would leave taxpayers having to pick up the considerable bill – which we simply cannot justify. Prisoners at HMP Norwich will continue working at Britannia Enterprises’ other establishments in Norwich.”

The question remains as to how the MoJ can invest in the building, and in turn use it to give back to the prison, without public money. The speculation locally is that Britannia Enterprise’s stricken finances are being used as an “opportunity” to find a buyer for the premises, which are spectacular architecturally and also in terms of the city view. I understand no sale is currently in process, however.

“I think the people who have served notice should be aware of how important this venue is to the community,” says Trish Seymour, a Norwich resident since 2003 who is in her late forties, and started the Facebook group to save the café – she favours the smothered chicken dish there. “I love the ethics of the café. It’s nice talking to the prisoners and you can have a laugh – you get to know their sense of humour, I’ve been wound up several times!”

This case highlights the pitfalls of business involvement in such vital prison schemes. The prison population in England and Wales has also almost doubled in the past 25 years, with stretched budgets making rehabilitation efforts even more precarious.

As a Justice Select Committee report warned in April, “we are now in the depths of an enduring crisis in prison safety and decency that has lasted five years and is taking significant additional investment to rectify, further diverting funds from essential rehabilitative initiatives that could stem or reverse the predicted growth”.

Eleven prisoners were employed at Café Britannia when it closed. Two so far have been transferred to other Britannia Enterprises establishments. The rest are now seeking work placements.

A shop attached to the café selling repurposed, recycled and reupholstered furniture by prisoners is also due to close in October.

“It’s a loss to the prison system, to rehabilitation,” says one inmate who has been inside since 2003, and started working here six months ago.

“I’ve been in a long time and it’s a great way of getting back into society – interacting with the customers. There’s so much scrutiny in the prison environment. Here, you’re not judged, no one’s asking: ‘Is he in for armed robbery?’”

He would rather not be named for this article, although he grins that he is known to one customer as “the man with the rough voice” and sang happy birthday to her upon her request.

“I’ve done the pot wash, cleaning tables, woodwork shop, cleaning rooms, interacting with customers, it’s been really good for me,” he says. “I was a little bit shy, a bit withdrawn, at first, I didn’t know how to take things, but within a month I’d calmed down.”

He’ll be out of prison soon, and knows now how to “move forward”, but if he hadn’t had this work “they would’ve opened the door and said ‘bye’”.

In a dusty workshop beside the café, with reupholstered black stools perching on the work surface, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody blasts out of a radio on a shelf. One inmate, who has been in prison since 1984, is sanding down a dining chair. He’s been working at the shop for seven weeks, and will have to find new work come October.

“The jail environment is all guys, bravado, and so working here gets some of the rough edges off you, you learn to speak differently, it’s softening,” he tells me, preferring to remain anonymous. “It will be sorely missed, and they probably don’t have enough outside jobs for us guys.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.