On 11 October, my day started a little earlier than usual. I was on the 6.08am train, heading towards Plumstead, south-east London to visit HMP/YOI Isis – a category C training prison. Isis is situated next to HMP Belmarsh – a category A men’s prison, which holds 910 male inmates.
I wasn’t alone on this visit as I was with Only A Pavement Away (OAPA) founder Greg Mangham alongside representatives from the hospitality industry including Beds & Bars, Brewhouse & Kitchen and more from the restaurant and hotel sectors.
This was all in aid of giving offenders career opportunities when they get out.
Back to the day itself. Upon arrival, the rigorous security included fingerprint scanning, having a photograph taken and handing over self identification.
It went without saying that any electronic devices were prohibited as well as paper, chewing gum and even my passport due to the electronic chip in it.
Then it was through an X-ray body scanner (similar to that seen in airports), plus the removal of my shoes, coat and scarf.
Once checked and inside, we were treated to a tour of certain areas of the prison.
This included seeing the gym facilities as well as the prison’s vast array of education options.
HMP/YOI Isis is proud of its education and training programmes with prisoners’ work and projects adorning the walls.
The walls are also adorned with posters that call on inmates to think positively.
Facts ’n’ stats
- The prison has a 628 capacity but tends to hold about 618 prisons
- There are two housing units – Thames and Meridian
- Isis is sited within the perimeter wall of HMP Belmarsh
- Emily Thomas is the Governor of the prison.
We were then taken to the Quay’s restaurant – a dining area and kitchen where 12 prisoners cook and serve the food to prison staff.
The menu included a range of sandwiches, jacket potatoes or main meals such as barbecue chicken kebab with chilli and lime rice, all prepared in an open kitchen.
For dessert, a chocolate brownie with ice cream and raspberry coulis.
One prisoner told me this job in the restaurant was one of the most highly regarded occupations and very sought after because there are just a dozen places available.
Uniforms were provided too with chef whites in the kitchen and black uniforms for the front of house.
After we had eaten, Mangham urged the prisoners to work with OAPA upon their releases. He said: “We can give you a pension, shares, holiday pay and offer progression as well as help with accommodation and uniform”.
I witnessed many of the operators across the hospitality sector, give their details to prisoners, asking them to get in contact when they got out of prison and complimenting them on their skills.
At no point did I feel uncomfortable or threatened, even when inmates were on ‘free-flow’ (at certain times of the day, prisoners travel from one part of the prison to another ie, when going to complete work tasks of education) and walked past us.
Or even when in the restaurant when they were surrounding us to serve and cook food and drink.
I spoke to one of the prisoners who was serving us for quite a time and asked him about his role in this particular work placement.
He had previously been working in the prison kitchen and it was only his third day in the Quays. However, he thoroughly enjoyed it, especially speaking with people and when I asked him if he would consider doing something similar on the outside, he said it was a definite possibility.
More than just a job
- Only A Pavement Away (OAPA) was launched on World Homeless Day on Wednesday 10 October 2018
- The charity was founded to help people on the streets or ‘sofa surfers’ to’ find employment in the sector
- It aims to see up to 500 homeless people employed within the trade in its first year
- It will act as a middleman between employers and support organisations for the homeless, ex-offenders and ex-service personnel
- The funds raised by OAPA are used to support those returning to work, supplement the resources required by the charities/associations to manage the project and promote the jobs available in the hospitality sector
- More than 10m people in the UK have a criminal record. Only 17% people with a criminal history are employed on a payroll in the year following their release from prison, according to 2018 UK Government figures
- Charities have been working to reduce barriers into employment after prison in a bid to reduce reoffending rates
- This has been particularly pertinent in the hospitality sector, which has experienced difficulties filling posts
- OAPA stated the prison population in 2018 was 83,673 with 70,000 ex-offenders released each year. Just 17% were in P45 employment one month after release with this increasing to 23% two years after release.
- An employed ex-offender is up to 67% less likely to reoffend
In fact, aside from the plastic cutlery, you could have been in a restaurant anywhere in the country. Not in a prison in south London.
The conversation I had got me thinking about the perception people often have about prisoners. These people are serving their time in prison for crimes they have been found guilty of but what about when they are released?
If someone has been sentenced and doesn’t have a job, anywhere to live or much support on the outside, surely giving them a reason to not reoffend can only be a good thing.
It could give someone something to live for when they have become institutionalised by the prison service and consider their actions before doing something they could regret that could mean they end up back behind bars.
Not only this but it provides inmates with skills while they are serving their time and keeps them occupied, therefore, reducing the chance of arguing, fighting or causing trouble.
I also witnessed a good relationship between staff and prisoners with inmates greeting the all-female team of prison officers with an occasional: “Hi miss”.
Again, I didn’t feel there was any malice behind this and it was a genuine mark of respect. I am under no illusions that the prison probably does have issues with violence and I’m not trying to look at the situation through rose-tinted glasses but I was so overwhelmed with just how much people’s lives could change as a result of getting the help, support and education when leaving prison.
Rehabilitation is something that is lauded when it comes to those with addictions but, for prisoners, it almost seems to be frowned upon.
These people are serving their time for crimes they have committed so why shouldn’t they be given opportunities when they are released?
The hospitality industry is about people, people from all walks of life. The sector also has a staff shortage, particularly in kitchens and these people are serving their time so surely this is something we can work together on – giving ex-offenders a job and something to stay out of prison for.
They have served their time so we should give them some of our time, to help them and in turn, help the industry too.