Mike sent to prison

25 Nov 2009

 Yes it's true. I have been sent to prison - directly to prison. And not before time, I hear some of you mutter.

The good news is that the sentence was light: I had to serve no more than a lengthy lunchtime inside.

I was sent to The Clink, an innovative restaurant project inside Her Majesty's Prison, High Down in Surrey. It's a Category B prison, which means the inmates include some serious offenders, for whom escape must be made extremely difficult.

The idea behind the project, which opened earlier this year thanks to support from the Kevin McGrath Charitable Trust, is to provide training and work experience for prisoners. 

To get to The Clink you have to pass through the usual prison security. That starts with the reception area where you are relieved of your mobile phone and asked to surrender any 'sharp objects'.

Then it's through the air-lock electronic steel gates,across a compound bounded by high wire fences, and through several locked and barred gates, accompanied by a prison officer. 

But once you are inside the restaurant you could easily imagine you are in a top-end eaterie. Yet everything around you is associated with prison. 

The food is all cooked and served by current prisoners. The Maitre D' and the head chef are former offenders. Even the furniture and art work were made by prisoners. But none of this would be out of place in a high-class restaurant -- except, that is, the plastic cutlery.  There was certainly not a single bowl of cold porridge to be seen.

The food is excellent, as is the service. The starters include Goats cheese, balsamic onion and mango tart and homemade soup. The mains include Grilled Mullet in a lemon, olive and caper sauce and Confit of Lamb shoulder with orange and redcurrant.

The only thing that is dated about the whole place is the prices, which range from £4.50 to £5.95 for mains and around £2.20 for starters. 

The project was the idea of the prison's head of catering services, Alberto Crisci, who wanted something which would give prisoners a setting where they could build up experience and qualifications to help them gain work when they are released. Out of restaurant hours, the kitchen is used to provide training in vocational qualifications.

Kevin McGrath, whose charity backed the project, says one of the tragedies of the prison system is the very high level of re-offending amongst ex-prisoners. He says re-offending levels fall dramatically when prisoners receive some training and education and are equipped with the experience to get work when they are released.

 I was there for a Trustees' meeting of another charity, the National Education Trust, a foundation dedicated to improving the quality of education and helping to close the achievement gap.  It was certainly a different - yet very appropriate - setting for an education charity to meet in. 

 Prisons tend to be ignored. For many of us, it's a case of out of sight and out of mind.  But nowhere is education more important than in prison. This is a superb project with winners all round: the prisoners, their future employers, the taxpayer (because of the reduction in re-offending), society...and not forgetting the diners.   

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