It isn't all that often that your dining experience is muddled with social responsibility and penal reform, but last week I was fortunate enough to visit The Clink Restaurant Brixton where this particular brand of innovation was dished up in spades! I left feeling positively inspired and curiously determined to get involved; spending the remainder of my week focusing on whatever project management skills, academic background and/or network I may have to bring to this innovative table...you know, those skills that somehow earn me just enough enough pennies to binge and guzzle my way through London, and scamper around the world...
A concept developed by Alberto Crisci MBE while working as Catering Manager for HMP High Down, The Clink has become a beacon of hope for numerous inmates and the likes of me who has always fervently believed in the need to educate, empower and entrust our people if we want to prosper and evolve into the next generation, with more security, success and safety. According to the Prison Population Statistics published by House of Commons in July 2013, the number of people incarcerated in the UK has been rising by an average of 3.6% every year since 1993, reducing only slightly for the first time in 2013. I'm sure that this latest slight decline can be attributed to a myriad of factors (sentencing reforms, a redress of mental healthcare, education and rehabilitation schemes for example), and obviously more needs to be done to reduce violence in our communities, remove drugs from our streets and encourage stability of families through work and education, but initiatives like The Clink have surely got to be nodding in the right direction for all the right reasons.
Co-founded with Kevin McGrath, by special permissions of Peter Dawson, former Governor of HMP High Down, with support from trustees Kate Quigley-Ruby and Finlay Scott, Alberto managed to open the first of the The Clink Restaurants in 2009, but it is now a collective of enterprises ranging from event catering and gardens (HMP Send for women and HMP High Down for men), to restaurants in HMP Cardiff, HMP High Down, and HMP Brixton. There is set to be a forth restaurant in Styal, Cheshire soon, and from what I understand, there are plans to have up to 10 restaurants by 2017 - a very exciting growth strategy as far as I'm concerned.
Inmates from a variety of these Category B - C prisons can apply for the opportunity to work during their sentence, earning a little money and gaining NVQ standard qualifications, with the hope that a little more knowledge, confidence and experience will break the cycle of offending by offering better chances of employment and a fresh start upon release. Obviously, noone expects for this to work for everyone, but so far, statistics are revealing that for those involved in the programme, reoffending rates have visibly reduced within the first year of release. I for one, couldn't wait to be a part of it, so I applied for permissions to write about it, therefore hopefully encouraging you all to do the same, to get involved. Spending £30 on a 3-course lunch will not only satisfy your hunger and give you an experience to remember, but it will help allow the charity and inmates alike to grow, improve and change.
Upon arrival to HMP Brixton, we swapped our photo ID for a security badge, then were collectively given a full and friendly briefing on the security protocols, restrictions of entry and what to expect. Waiting on the wrong side of the prison walls, for the heavy security doors to open felt strangely surreal, giving a tiny taster of what it must feel like to enter a secure environment (except we were choosing lunch, not a captive sentence, so my elevated sense of experience should not be interpreted as an understanding of what it must feel like to be imprisoned for real). A very short walk across the courtyard, we then entered through a double gated locked door into a pristine restaurant, with tables perfectly dressed and staff superbly presented!
Our waiter was the impeccable host throughout, offering to take our coats on arrival, prompt on service, attentive with drinks (all non-alcoholic for obvious reasons), and diligent with our orders. He had 3-8 months left on his sentence and while obviously hoping for the sooner of those options, this was his last day front of house - he was moving into the kitchen in an attempt to finish his qualification before being released. I couldn't help but to admire his determination and to root for his success, not just at this programme, but in life after the fact! I don't want to be naive here, but I never want to wake up without intrinsically or unfaltering believing that everyone should be given the opportunity to reach high. I believe that one must be given the confidence to take chances in life, as much as chances must be offered (rarely can one be achieved without the other), but that you must always take responsibility for your own fate.
Back to lunch though, our food was served in a timely fashion and it was all presented beautifully. I didn't know the backgrounds of our chefs, but assuming they were all working towards a foundation level NVQ in Hospitality and/or Catering (not at all dissimilar to the kitchen and restaurant you would have experienced at your local sixth form college on the outside), the standards were remarkable - there was room for improvement sure, but that's exactly what learning is all about isn't it?! The menu was well thought out and the ingredients were well used. I was in a group of six and we were all left full, happy and let's face it, enamoured and inspired by the entire experience.
All that's left to say then, is "wow", "great work", and "I can't wait for people to read this, read more and learn more about the charity." If you do nothing else this year, book in for breakfast or lunch (the restaurants are not open for dinner), tell your friends about it and try to get involved...