A post by Iqbal Wahhab
Founder of The Cinnamon Club and Roast restaurants
and chair of Bounce Back’s advisory board
The recent launch of Bounce Back’s dry lining centre training Brixton prisoners in a much needed skill by London’s hugely growing construction industry shows not just how much employers are stepping up to engage and employ prisoners on day release and then when their sentences are complete, but also shows how much more can be done in this vein.
Brixton of course also houses The Clink restaurant where inmates have been given day release opportunities at my Borough Market restaurant Roast and indeed some have gone on to secure full time employment to much success – so much so that one was recently “poached” to work at another restaurant. Annoying and satisfying at the same time.
The hospitality sector is very well skilled in complaining about the lack of skilled candidates coming forward to fill our vacancies; we’re less well skilled in attracting people to us.
My interest in prisons and engaging with ex-offenders started eight years ago when I was asked to lead a “Seeing is Believing” tour for Business in the Community to Wormwood Scrubs where I got to visit the kitchens. Inmates cooked up to 200 meals a day without ever being told that they were developing a skill. It was just a task to them.
Even dafter than that was the response I was given as to why there was so much empty space in the kitchen.
There used to be a butchery in one section but now they bought in pre-prepared meats and there used to be a bakery but now they found it easier to buy in sliced bread. I don’t know about the skills shortage issue among candle stick makers, but butchers and bakers are desperately looking for people to help grow their businesses. Every chef I know would love to have their own baking section and buy whole carcasses but London restaurant space comes at such a premium that for most it’s a luxury they cannot afford.
Relying on prison authorities to join these dots themselves is fanciful. They have their hands full with enough day-to-day issues and are facing cuts all the time. Only a few governors, like Graeme Hawkins at Isis, take pastoral care to ensure prisoners leaving them find a job and do not return as most tend to do.
I imagine there are acres of empty building space in our prisons which businesses could be putting to good use, just as happened with the dry lining centre. Bad Boy’s Bakery, also in Brixton and set up famously by Gordon Ramsay, was a good step in that direction but it was ancillary/unconnected to his core business. If restaurants could team up with butchers and bakers to become an essential part of our procurement programmes we would become committed to the process and ensure its success and longevity as it would be in our commercial interests to do so.
We could get a delivery line not just of produce we require but also of skilled people we could then put to work in our own kitchens when they were released. Bounce Back could help design and build the spaces.
And talking of spaces, watch this one for what happens next.