There are not many good news stories about our prison and probation system so of course, when one does crop up, it catches our attention. Recently, ‘failing Grayling’ has dominated discussion, with the reforms to the National Probation Service described as disastrous, ill-thought out and costing the tax payer millions of pounds. The academic criminology community and practitioners on the front line all saw it coming, but there is little comfort to be taken from being vindicated. Instead, for me there remains the question of ‘when will they learn?’ This is a subject I have written about before, my frustration at the lack of political will to meaningfully reform the CJS despite all the evidence demonstrating the need for this and the viable alternatives which could be adopted. However, it is still the case that a tough stance on law and order continues to gain political traction, just see some of the quotes coming from our new Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who seems determined to re-introduce the death penalty and has already outlined plans for increased surveillance.
So, back to the good news. A restaurant, open and managed by CLINKS has been shown to have a significant impact on re-offending rates – according to research conducted by the Ministry of Justice (Coughlan, 2019). CLINKS are an organisation which supports voluntary work in the CJS (see https://www.clinks.org). I first came across them when doing research into the experiences of BAME ex-offenders. It was clear this was a group who particularly benefitted from the work of volunteers, due to state services not meeting their cultural and spiritual needs, or even acknowledging their existence. In addition, CLINKS advised the Ministry of Justice on tackling the over-representation of BAME groups in the prison system. The research I did with colleagues at Birmingham City University also showed that having the status of an ‘ex-offender’ further compounded participants sense of hopelessness and resignation about the discrimination they faced (Sharp et al, 2006).
The ‘Clink’ restaurant is an initiative run in various prisons throughout the UK, and it has been cited as successful in providing prisoners with valuable work experience while serving their sentence – a project which Clink chief Christopher Moore said “works on both sides of the walls”. The Ministry of Justice clearly liked the link to employment and education, and the outcome of driving down re-offending rates – the figures do make for interesting reading, at a time when there is not much else to celebrate. For those trained in the restaurant at HMP Brixton, the re-offending rate was 11%, compared to those with similar offending history, who had a re-offending rate of 32%. But beyond the statistics, what really struck me was what some of those prisoners who were involved with the restaurant said. They expressed emotions of positivity, hope, and feeling valued.
There are clear links here to literature on desistance, which requires behavioural change and structural change to offer those willing to desist from crime, realistic and sustainable opportunities for them to do so (King, 2012). The Clink restaurant project also helps prisoners gain City and Guilds vocational qualifications, to be able to work in the wider hospitality industry. There is recognition of the need to help prisoners overcome the stigma they faced when trying to get jobs, homes and even make connections for social support. Another interesting quote came from a City and Guilds manager working with CLINKS, who said that “educating prisoners is not a reward for committing a crime – it’s about preventing further crime from being committed.” This shows the shift in thinking which is needed throughout government, the CJS and the wider public – that rehabilitation is necessary to prevent crime, and should be prioritised over those approaches which only promise to deter others.
This research and the reactions by prisoners themselves demonstrates how important is to understand what works in terms of outcomes, but also why. In this case there is a clear emotional need being met in training prisoners to work in teams, rely on each other, be valued and be able to respond positively to a training opportunity. The ethos of the Clink restaurant and those providing training show a clear sense of inclusivity and being non-judgemental for a group of people who experience stigma and discrimination, before, during and after their sentence. This ethos is at the heart of the voluntary sector who work with prisoners and ex-offenders more widely.
But what must be clear by now, is the best will in the world cannot overcome basic needs which must be met, resources which are needed to implement and sustain projects, and for the same opportunities and ethos to be replicated in the community. These are bigger issues to address, they reflect how limited the effect of an initiative such as Clinks restaurant can be for ex-prisoners needing to get jobs, homes and support outside the prison gates. However, perhaps this broader change can come with small, but significant steps, to change the narrative of the purpose of punishment and the approach of law and order in England and Wales. If that is the case, our current cabinet may find themselves on the wrong side of history, reflecting views which need to be consigned to an uncivil past. There is much to be done, it will probably get worse before it gets better, but those who know what works, why it works and how it works need to be the vanguard of reform in the CJS, and need to keep pushing for this.
Couglan, S. (2019) Prison restaurant serves up cut in reoffending, BBC News, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-49150997.
King, S. (2012) Transformative agency and desistance from crime. Criminology and Criminal Justice. 13 (3), 366-383.
Sharp, D, Atherton, S & Williams, K (2006) Everyone’s Business: Investigating The Resettlement Needs Of Black And Minority Ethnic Ex-Offenders In The West Midlands Government Office For The West Midlands.