The gates of Brixton Prison are massive and intimidating.
The prison is an elderly Victorian building in south London, and to enter it, you have to pass through a brick archway, protected by an imposing 15ft gate. I have come here to meet Christopher Moore, chief executive of the Clink Charity, for the prison is home to his organisation’s most famous and successful restaurant.
The Clink exists to reduce reoffending, and to do that, it trains prisoners in four restaurants. All operate in working prisons, and all are open to the general public. All offer a fine dining experience, albeit with plastic cutlery and no alcohol. All waiters and chefs are serving prisoners, with the exception of a few Clink trainers, and everything from the food to the art on the walls is sourced from within the prison system. The aim of the charity is to move prisoners into paid work.
The Clink has won scores of awards in recent years, and this summer it took the prestigious title of overall winner at The Charity Awards, the oldest and best known awards in the charity sector, which is run by Civil Society Media.
The charity started in 2009, with a prison chef teaching cookery skills in a prison kitchen. He found that those he taught kept coming back. They could not stay out of jail.
The initial intervention was ineffective because getting a job requires a lot more than skills, and the prisoners were hampered by their difficulty re-establishing themselves in life outside the gates.
The current system supports trainees not just to the end of their sentence, but well beyond. The Clink meets them at the prison gates when they are released, finds them accommodation, and helps them into paid work.
The system has a number of strengths. It prepares prisoners for the world of work, giving them qualifications and real-life work experience. It provides evidence to employers that ex-offenders will make good staff. And it educates the public who dine in the restaurants that prisoners are just people, like everyone else, deserving of a fair shot.
It helps, of course, that the food is excellent, and the experience unique. As a result, the charity’s restaurants are incredibly highly rated. For a spell earlier this year, the Brixton restaurant was the top-ranked London restaurant on TripAdvisor.
The system also produces real results for the beneficiaries. Nationally, 45 out of every 100 prisoners leaving prison will re-offend. For those serving a sentence of less than a year, this rises to 58 out of 100 – an unforgiveable failure of the UK’s rehabilitation system. But if you are a graduate of Clink training, these numbers fall dramatically.
And the system is largely self-financing. The Clink does not need a subsidy for its ongoing work, because the rehabilitation process is paid for largely by diners.
Moore came on board in 2010, and has overseen considerable success. The charity is hoping to expand into more prisons, but is also looking at other opportunities, such as prison gardens and external event catering. So what conclusions can be drawn from The Clink’s success?
Test and measure
The Clink’s approach is one of continuous assessment. “Everything we’ve done, we’ve tested first,” Moore says. “We had an idea. We tried the model. It worked. We’ve always relied on the evidence base. We’ve looked at what other people have done and learned from it.”
One key, he says, is to have a very clear idea of what you want to achieve, and ask yourself frequently whether you are doing it. “We question ourselves all the time,” he says. “Is this reducing reoffending? Is it possible to do this better?
“And we set very clear objectives for the organisation. Every employee of The Clink can tell you our objectives for the year.”
The charity sector, says Moore, has to be careful not to let people think that because they are doing something voluntarily, or because they are focused on doing good, they can do less than their best work. Too many people, he feels, are expecting charities to be well meaning but ineffective.
“I was allergic to the idea of charity”, he says. “I thought it was all ‘have a go, do your best, it doesn’t really matter’. But here we have a copper-bottomed, gold-star approach.
“We pay commercial salaries. We recruit professional people. We have a heavyweight board of trustees. We’re running in a businesslike way in a unique environment.”
Do what you're good at
Moore says he is frustrated that there are 1,300 charities in the prisons sector. “One isn’t the right number,” he says. “But nor is 1,300.”
It is obvious, he says, that there must be plurality of approach, so that competing and contrasting methods can be tested out. But at present, he feels, too many people are duplicating one another’s efforts. They are not connecting properly and are leaving gaps in support. Not enough effort is being made to identify those which are the most effective. And too many people are starting new charities, with little idea what they are doing.
“I have been approached by people who want to work in prisons and are setting up a charity,” he says. “They want to help. But I think: ‘Do you know anything about prisons? Do you have a unique skill which can help? No? Well, don’t bother then. Don’t start a charity. Go to the people who can.’
“Because doing it well is jolly hard work. When we started I was working 70 or 80 hours a week. So was my team. Don’t get involved unless that’s what you can give.”
Scale and replicate
One problem that Moore discusses, and one of the single biggest problems for the charity sector, is that good ideas tend not to be replicated.
His charity is focused on growth. Not only is he keen to scale up his own model, but to see it replicated in other industries.
“I’m looking at construction,” he says. “There’s a massive shortage of construction workers. There are shortages in all the craft-based skills – plumbing, carpentry, hairdressing. Why can’t we provide that training in prisons?”
Do good well
In the end, Moore is heavily focused on his own sector – rehabilitation – although he feels that The Clink’s model of training in industries with a shortage, together with end-to-end support into work, could easily be adopted by those working with homeless people, people with addictions, or troubled young people.
But while improving the sector is not his primary goal, he obviously feels that there are traits which the exemplars share: a willingness to test their model and abandon underperforming interventions, a dedication to professionalism, and continuous improvement.