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11 February 2022updated 01 Mar 2022 3:26pm

Cooking, cushion covers and coffee roasting: A different sort of prison education

Is the government doing enough to support prisoner education initiatives?

By Zoë Grünewald

While some may know Fred Sirieix as the charismatic maître d’ from the hit Channel 4 show First Dates, there is one specific community that know him as the man who gave them a second chance. In December 2015, he launched The Right Course, a charity that turns staff canteens in prisons into high-street-like restaurants run by prisoners. By using the existing space and equipment, the initiative allows prisoners to gain industry-recognised qualifications and work in the hospitality sector upon release.

Around 15 years ago, after seeing a wave of crime in his local area of south-east London, Sirieix started working with people who found themselves in trouble with the law. “I just thought to myself, if I want things to change then I need to take action myself,” he says. “And if I want to make the world a better place, I need to change myself.” When he visited the young offenders unit at Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Isis in Thameside, London, he realised the staff mess could easily become a training restaurant like the ones in a catering college. “It’s very simple – it’s basically transforming staff messes in prison into training restaurants run by the prisoners, so they run the front of house as well as the kitchen,” he says. Since then, The Right Course has set up two restaurants: at Isis and at HMP Wormwood Scrubs, which was formally opened in October 2021 by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, whose office helped to fund the refurbishment.

The Right Course is just one of several initiatives providing prisoners with work so that they have the skills to help them find employment in the outside world. Another is Redemption Roasters, “the world’s first behind bars coffee company”. Through roasting its coffee at HMP The Mount in Hemel Hempstead the company offers on-the-job experience and academy training in the roastery trade. The initiative also provides employment upon release, with the website claiming the firm is the “single-largest employer” of its own graduates.

Education and training in prisons is desperately needed because there is a considerable and concerning skills gap between prisoners and the general population. The chief executive of the Prisoners’ Education Trust, Jon Collins, says that more than half of the prisoners that are assessed on entry have English literacy and maths levels “below those expected of someone leaving primary schools”; one in three have a learning disability or difficulty; and “we know that over 40 per cent of prisoners have been permanently excluded from school at some point”. Without this education, people are leaving prison in a worse place than when they started – still subject to a gap, but now with the added disadvantage of a spent conviction.

Collins adds that there is value in education beyond preparing prisoners for work after they are released; while it may not be directly beneficial for securing employment or bestowing qualifications after release, it is important in terms of prisoner self-confidence and well-being while in custody. “That broader range of opportunities, which enables people who haven’t always had a positive experience of education in the past to do something that they enjoy and that engages them, can be immediately helpful for their well-being, but also can help them move into other forms of education once they are engaged,” he explains.

Sirieix speaks of the dual purpose of The Right Course – giving prisoners a job, but also “self-respect and a sense of pride”. “You should see, they are beaming with joy and pride and the self-confidence that gives them because suddenly they shine and are able to show how good they are,” he says. A 2021 joint commentary by Amanda Spielman, chief inspector of Ofsted, and Charlie Taylor, Her Majesty’s (HM) chief inspector of prisons, meanwhile, stated that the purpose of prisoners’ education should be “to build confidence and a sense of achievement”.

Katy Emck is the founding director of the social enterprise Fine Cell Work, which was set up 25 years ago by prison campaigner Anne Tree to teach prisoners needlework. Emck says the idea behind the enterprise was that prisoners should be able to practise a skill in their cells, “specifically a craft skill, something artistic where they’re using their hands”. Emck says some of the prisoners’ works have been sold in “museums, in Fortnum and Masons, and they do commissions for amazing people”. Inmates receive one-third of the proceeds of the pieces they make, sometimes up to £2,000 a year, which Emck says can contribute to a nest egg for their release, or enable them to send money home to their families.

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Fine Cell Work also provides volunteer work for prisoners after their release, setting them up with a mentor and looking after them “for a couple of years as they try and get their lives together”. Fine Cell Work, too, offers prisoners more than just labour. “The money is important, [but] the rewarding, meaningful work is very important [in itself], and many of them have never experienced that at all,” Emck explains. “We tried to create an almost ideal world within prison, where they can feel proud, they can feel belonging.”

Despite such schemes, the prison education system is floundering. Some 60 per cent of prisons in England have received either a “Requires Improvement” or “Inadequate” grading from Ofsted for the quality of education and skills provision over the past five years, and according to the Prisoners’ Education Trust, only 7 per cent of men and 4 per cent of women have a job six weeks after leaving prison. The Prisoners’ Education Trust’s Collins says there are a number of reasons for the inconsistency in education provision, though the primary reason is funding. “The providers who deliver presentations can only make the money available to them go so far,” he explains. “Without more funding, it’s difficult to see how prison education will improve.” The situation has been exacerbated by Covid, meaning that even those prisons that could provide training were unable to. Shortly after the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, prisons moved to an Exceptional Regime Management Plan, which, according to the Prison Reform Trust, meant that “almost all purposeful activity was suspended, including work, training and education”. Though many schemes are back up and running now, the Ofsted/HM Inspectorate of Prisons joint commentary concluded that the pandemic had, ultimately, worsened an already insufficient system.

So, what more can be done? Emck wants to see an overhaul of prison governance and fewer changes at the top, meaning ministers really follow through with their proposals. “The prison system is so unstable – in the last ten years there have been nine prison ministers… there’s no stability to the policies,” she explains. Emck also wants to see a change in prison ideology, so its primary purpose is truly rehabilitation. “They say it’s for rehabilitation, but they do not believe it,” she says. Sirieix echoes that sentiment, and wants policy to be focused on the reality, and the humanity, of prisoners today. “The reason why people are in prison and the reason why I’m not is because of my loving family,” he says. “We have to start by giving people chances, even if it’s second, third or fourth chances. We’re going to give people opportunities, we’ve got to educate and we’ve got to believe that we can make a difference.”

In the recently published Prisons Strategy white paper, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab set out his intention to “keep the public safer in the longer term” by placing an emphasis on reforming and rehabilitating offenders. As part of this, the government has unveiled the construction of a new prison, in Glen Parva, Leicestershire, which puts “purpose at the core of rehabilitation”. In Raab’s accompanying statement, he said the prison would focus on the provision of education and training. The white paper also set out an intention to create a new Prisoner Education Service, which will improve basic literacy and numeracy skills and allow prisoners to acquire further vocational qualifications.

Only time will tell if the white paper can make real changes to the prison education system. Collins is sceptical, saying that “while [the government’s] ambition to improve prison education is absolutely the right one, we don’t really know yet what that will look like in practice or what steps will actually be taken to drive forward those improvements”. In the meantime, there are many excellent initiatives that are working to rehabilitate offenders and offer them another chance. One can only hope that the government is truly willing to commit to a long-term strategy that supports offenders to learn, acquire both work and academic skills, and reintegrate back into society

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