Mike MacEacheran | Prison dining, England, Etihad Airways
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Prison dining, England, Etihad Airways

Just 200 yards off the bustling Brixton Hill street is a restaurant with a difference. A real difference. It serves breakfast and lunch like plenty of the trendy outlets in the nearby Brixton Village, awarded the best market in the whole UK for its hipster appeal. But this 120-cover restaurant, some would argue, is in one of the least desirable places to dine in the country.

It’s located beyond the thick-steel doors of Her Majesty’s Prison Brixton, from the outside a mesh of barbed wire, patrolling guards, sniffer dogs and security cameras. It’s all rather intimidating.

The notion that criminals and convicts serve up gourmet fare and are entrusted with sharp knives and pointy cooking utensils is not as fanciful as it seems – all of HMP Brixton’s successful inmate applicants who make it past the rigorous interview stage relish the opportunity to cook for paying diners. It not only helps alleviate the boredom of mundane cell life, but is part of a larger five-step model (recruit, train, audit, employ, mentor) to reduce overall offending rates: indeed, the news of the inmates capacity to learn and share their skills is starting to spread well beyond the confines of the prison walls.

The restaurant project, or The Clink Charity as it’s officially known, is becoming championed thanks to an increase in openings – the HMP Brixton restaurant follows the successful launch of others at prisons in Cardiff in Wales and one at High Down, Surrey. Another seven prison restaurants are in the pipeline, too, and it’s evident that the idea is engaging the greater British public with the welfare of prisoners in a way that’s never been done before. Yet as it’s a prison, the restaurant does little in way of advertising or marketing and there are no traditional critic reviews in newspapers and magazines. So how has it become such a success?

“We’ve had 12,000 visitors so far,” says Chris Moore, chief executive of The Clink Charity behind the restaurant. “That’s 1,000 people a month – a real cross-section of society. So I like to think that we’re changing the public’s perception of what life in a prison is like, and we’re helping out the hospitality industry. It operates just like a normal restaurant, really – you just can’t sneak out for a cigarette break.”

Given that dining at HMP Brixton requires an in depth security briefing before any reservation is granted, it can also prove to be a complicated visit. Basic entry includes the following: all visitors must book at least 72 hours in advance of arrival and be aged 18 or over (which at least deters any walk-in customers, the bane of the current no-reservation London dining trend). Mobile phones or SIM Cards are not allowed in to the prison at any time. You may be required to use a biometric system, which includes your fingerprints and photograph being taken. Diners may also be subject to routine searching. Then before the booking can be confirmed this is written in big scary red letters: please ensure you have read and understood the security procedures outlined above as it is a criminal offence if you do not comply. All of which means that – once you get past the portcullis and menacingly thick steel door – you can happily guarantee a table on a busy Saturday lunchtime.

What makes The Clink restaurant such an empowering concept – and like a badge of honour for anyone that has visited – is it genuinely seems to be working. Upon their release, The Clink Charity helps graduates find employment within the catering and hospitality industry and mentors them weekly for 6-12 months to help them reintegrate back into society and not reoffend.

“The prisoners work 40 hours a week, eight hours a day and learn more than just how to work in a professional kitchen,” adds Chris. “They learn teamwork, motivation, social skills – and some of these prisoners have never had a job, at least not a legal one.” On top of this, each training session is meticulous (the knives and sharper kitchen implements are locked away and need to be signed in and out every time they’re used to trim a carrot) and each dish is carefully constructed. Each kitchen assistant or pastry chef has a genuine opportunity to continue their career within the hospitality industry after they serve out their custodial sentence – and the statistics for reoffenders are startling.

Currently in the UK, 47 per cent of ex-convicts reoffend within one year of release, rising to 75 per cent among those who do not find work within five years. In 2011, however, the reoffending rate of The Clink graduates was 12.5 per cent — and many more found work in restaurants, including Carluccio’s, Prezzo, Wahaca and Locanda Locatelli – four of the UK’s most successful high-end restaurants. Indeed, though it has not yet been verified, the number of reoffenders for 2012 is believed to be around 6 per cent, another huge drop below the national average.

So successful is the charity that the fourth restaurant is now soon to open at HMP Styal near Manchester early next year. It’ll be the first in a female prison, and by 2017, The Clink Charity plans to have 10 training projects across the UK, mentoring upwards of 500 prisoners a year. There are also now two Clink Gardens, where inmates farm fruit, vegetables and herbs to supply the restaurants, plus they have recently invested in livestock, including some 50 chickens.

“This is all part of the bigger picture,” says Chris. “When you come out of prison you need to have a tough skin. It’s difficult to find work, to get a mortgage, to pay bills. Society is against you and that’s why so many former prisoners reoffend. That’s where The Clink is starting to really make a difference.”

As for the restaurant itself, for the casual diner, that’s an eye-opener, too. The slate walls could be straight out of Mayfair’s finest five-star hotels and the banquet seating and tables – indeed everything to the lighting – couldn’t be further from the rest of prison life, despite the fact that they’ve been handcrafted in prison workshops throughout the country.

And as for the food? The menu reads like it should belong at a far more expensive Michelin star outpost in Soho. For a main course you can choose pan seared cod loin with pea crust, confit potatoes, pancetta, samphire and lemon and caper dressing, or thyme roast guinea fowl with celeriac rosti and chargrilled vegetables. Desert could be chocolate and chili tart with lime infused crème fraiche – or a variety of ice creams, all of which are made fresh onsite, every morning.

“We’ve been visited by the Michelin team,” concludes Chris, proudly. “But as we’re not open to the public in the traditional sense as a walk-in, walk-out restaurant, we’re not eligible – though they did say they loved the place.”