Does the idea of employing an ex-offender seem like a risky one? Interested operators gathered at the Clink Restaurant at High Down Prison in Surrey to air their preconceptions and address the barriers to recruitment. Emily Manson reports
It would be foolish to ignore the fact that preconceptions about hiring ex-offenders do exist and are generally negative, but the Clink operations director and founder trustee Alberto Crisci and chief executive Chris Moore are determined to change this.
Speaking at a round table discussion held at the Clink last month, Crisci explains: “If people come to the Clink they’ll make their own mind up and it’s generally positive, whereas if the decision is based on ignorance or headlines, then it’s generally negative.”
But it’s not just preconceived opinions that need to be considered, believes Miranda French, director of Troika Recruitment. “If you read about the Clink, you don’t automatically get it, but when you visit, the personal impression is crucial to changing people’s opinions. People are judgemental but they don’t realise, they’re probably employing people who’ve done worse,” she says.
Andrew Richards, HR director at Compass Group, points out that, for companies where clients are big stakeholders and influence decision-making, this kind of project is becoming very desirable from a CSR point of view. “We do have clients who are interested but it’s also about how to influence other clients – as companies we need to accept responsibility to try and do something,” he says.
To ensure that candidates have every chance of success when they leave, inmates at the Clink undergo a rigorous 18-month, five-day-a-week, 52-weeks-a-year training programme. Initially, they are checked for basic literacy and language skills and also offered other forms of help, such as anger management, drug or alcohol addiction therapy, IT, English classes or even social skills workshops. “We’ve put them under more pressure here, so they know they can cope when they get outside and back into society,” Crisci says.
Everyone also has to work in the restaurant and Crisci admits that most are initially horrified, but he adds: “Within an hour they’re fine. It’s getting over that initial barrier and it’s all part of building their confidence – the Clink is about the prisoner, not hospitality in the end. People are going from here with the cards stacked against them: potentially no accommodation, no family or support and they need to have built up their confidence to fight to stay clean.”
The process and support structure for inmates leaving the Clink has changed significantly since its inception and now continues for six months after release. Springboard’s mentoring begins eight weeks before a candidate is released into the workplace. Then there are weekly visits and regular mentoring sessions. “When they leave High Down there’s a void and mentoring helps secure them and provide a level of accountability as well as an acknowledgement of their efforts,” Moore says.
Leah de Silva, business development director at Springboard, which mentors the ex-offenders as they re-enter the workplace, explains that much of Springboard’s support comes in the form of practical help. “We help with any issues – from buying a travelcard to being there to support people when they get to that danger zone or crossroads,” she explains. “It’s in our interests to support them and create an alumni for as long as they want.”
That support exists from Moore and Crisci, too – whose mobile phone numbers are given to all on the programme so they are contactable whenever the need arises.
“We want them to be ambassadors for the Clink – they’re all aware of that and that if they mess up they may be closing the door for others to follow. We’d like to think they become part of an alumni which then also helps provide each other with support and common identity,” de Silva adds.
But leaving prison is hard, there’s no denying it. Prisoners may have debts from before, and getting things like credit cards or even bank accounts is complicated, often with higher associated charges.
Crisci sympathises: “You can see why people can think it’s easier to go back to crime. Being part of society is really hard.”
French agrees. “It’s all the factors outside of their control that are the most destructive to their chances of not reoffending.”
Accommodation is a key issue and the hardest to overcome when prisoners are released into the same area as they committed their crime. “They’ll generally know other ex-cons and it’s easy to be drawn back in,” warns Crisci, adding the ideal situation is to have a job with accommodation in a different area.
Nigel Collett, operations director at the Royal Society of Medicine, points out that the workplace is not the issue. “It’s what they do when they’re not there,” he says. “How is the cycle broken if their going-out culture remains the same? It’s what support they have outside too.”
He suggests implementing strategies such as weekly pay, help with budget management and setting up direct debits as a way of overcoming the initial challenges of being on the outside, as well as careful management of shifts to ensure candidates don’t have too much alone time. “The first month is crucial as it’s often the tipping point and really hard when starting from nothing,” he adds.
Eibhear Coyle, executive chef and director of catering at Lancaster London, who has taken on a Clink graduate, explains: “When you take one on, it’s for life – you may get a long good stretch and then a blip and you have to be prepared for that. We do treat him differently – there’s a lot more personal input. He comes straight to me if he’s late or has no money and I’m happy to put a lot more focus on him as I want him to succeed.”
Coyle admits this could prove tricky with the rest of the team. “So far, there’s been zero negative feedback, which is probably also due to his personality and determination to prove himself.”
Meanwhile, John Nugent, chief executive of Green & Fortune, King’s Place, who has also hired two ex-offenders says the Government needs to provide more support to ex-offenders on release. “Given the money the Government spends on housing prisoners while inside, it’s bizarre that they then send them out with just £50,” he says. “They should look at ways of providing more money to see them through, even if that’s in the form of loans.”
Finding a niche
Most of the Clink’s trainees find they fit into the kitchen environment well. Coyle notes: “Chefs are often lovable rogues anyway, and many think ‘There but for the grace of god go I’, so there doesn’t appear to be much of a stigma and these guys fit right in. They get the hierarchical nature of a kitchen, are used to strong structures and the team spirit is also good for them.”
Stephane Davaine, director, front of house operations at Coutts Bank, agrees. “It does provide an almost natural fit as they can’t hide in the kitchen. They have to work as a team and they can’t escape the work or camaraderie.”
To ensure the programme’s continued success, many more employers are needed, says Moore, with 120 companies signed up so far. “But we need a huge bank of employers to be able to match the right people, at the right times, with the right companies,” he adds. “We are trying to change the perception of employers – there will be blips, but these people are just a cross-section of society and come out highly trained, ready to work in an industry that has a skills shortage.”
The ex-offenders’ stories
I am currently a serving prisoner at HMP High Down. I first went to prison when I was 15. My life was very colourful and hectic. I was a “problem child” and in a children’s home at the age of 10. My stepfather taught me how to steal cars and burgle houses.
I’m not going to pretend I didn’t know right from wrong, because I did, but, due to things not being great at home, I spent a lot of time on the streets. When I was 19 I met my wife, Dawn. I was going through lots of trouble and she saved me from myself, telling me if I wanted to be with her, I had to leave gangs, crime and be a normal person.
We married in 2008. I was 21 and shortly after Dawn gave birth to my daughter. But instead of living happily ever after, I made a number of horrendous mistakes and in the summer of 2010 my wife moved away. I committed further crimes and was sent to prison in February 2011.
I heard about the Clink and was lucky to get a job there in July. I didn’t know much about the hospitality industry; in fact I was very naïve and thought it was for women. How wrong was I? I am not looking for sympathy, but I had never been given a chance in life.
I am now really happy and enjoying my role in the Clink. I would even say I believe I’ve found my true vocation. I love what I’m doing and I’m looking forward to a career in this industry. Dean, Kane and Alberto have taught me a great deal and I would like to thank them for helping me to becoming a good waiter. When I leave prison I’m actually going to have a job, accommodation and a new way of life. The Clink has helped me to mature and calm down a lot.
Since I’ve been at the Clink my wife has said she will wait for me and give me the chance to prove myself to be a changed man.
Crime has affected my life in many ways from a young age. My mum went to prison when I was eight and was released when I was 16. Then, two years later, I began a three-year sentence for drug dealing. At this stage I believed things couldn’t get any worse so I thought I’d try my luck at whatever came along. I got a job at NatWest but after 18 months they found out I’d not disclosed my prison record so I had to resign.
I found myself back on “the street” and began dealing drugs again. Six months later I was back in prison for a firearms offence and sentenced to nine years. I realised I would need a career or trade if I was to change my life. If I found something I liked doing I would never have to return to that world again.
After watching two years of Come Dine with Me and six months of MasterChef, and working in the prison kitchen, I developed a passion for cooking and it has a therapeutic effect which can be helpful in prison life.
I heard about the Clink scheme from a prison officer. I was apprehensive but to my amazement Al invited me in for an interview straight away. His blunt, straight-to-the-point approach was a little scary at first, but it was obvious he is dedicated to helping reform prisoners.
Now, 12 months on, I am being released and the Clink has found me a full-time job in London with a contract caterer at a prestigious corporate site. With the guidance and chance to change my life from the Clink I now have something to work towards. The irony is, it was a prison restaurant that changed my life for the better.
Clink round table attendees
Tips when employing a Clink Trainee
The benefits of hiring a clink trainee
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