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Inside The Clink’s prison garden and restaurant in Surrey

PUBLISHED: 09:48 01 September 2015 | UPDATED: 11:15 01 September 2015

Tools are tagged and closely monitored at The Clink prison garden in Send

Tools are tagged and closely monitored at The Clink prison garden in Send

©Nishi Sharma, All Rights Reserved

When a prison chef suggested that their governor should open up the kitchens to inmates as a training scheme for rehabilitating prisoners, there was some scepticism. Ten years on from its original inception at HMP High Down near Banstead, however, the idea has blossomed into The Clink charity, with award-winning restaurants, kitchen gardens and more. Matthew Williams takes the tour

Fruit and veg grown at Send helps to supply The Clink's restaurant in Sutton Fruit and veg grown at Send helps to supply The Clink's restaurant in Sutton

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine August 2015

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They say that it’s the smallest ideas that can change the world, and one seemingly unlikely example on our doorstep is The Clink charity.

What started as an extra-curricular pop-up restaurant in a prison storeroom at HMP High Down, between Banstead and Sutton, has gone on to become multiple award-winning restaurants, kitchen gardens and a rehabilitation programme that’s helping to transform the prison system nationwide.

It all began though in Surrey, and boundaries continue to be pushed here – which is why I find myself today at HMP Send. Found down leafy lanes and surrounded by the affable hospitality of the Horsleys and Clandons, there are plenty of locals that barely realise this place exists. It’s here though that The Clink project has been inspired to grow further with a new kitchen garden, to help supply fresh produce for the charity’s restaurants, such as the original one at HMP High Down.

“Our sole aim is to reduce reoffending rates of ex-offenders,” says chief executive of the charity, Chris Moore, who I meet with governor Carlene Dixon and garden manager Gary Gates.

“We work in partnership with Her Majesty’s Prison Service to run projects that train and give practical skills to prisoners to aid their rehabilitation. We have committed to operating 10 Clink projects by the end of 2017, which will see up to 500 highly-trained and qualified ex-offenders being released into employment each year.”

Transformative effect

The HMP Send gardens were the charity’s fourth project and their first venture into women’s prisons. Opened in 2014, taking advantage of existing polytunnels, today long rows of irrigated fruit and veg, 50 free-range Rhode Island red chickens and thousands of bees kept by a local beekeeper are to be found, surrounded by leafy woods. It’s not hard to see why working the land outdoors is more inspiring for inmates than being stuck behind four walls.

In the sheds, a vast range of tools line the walls – all numbered and secured to ensure things remain in their proper place when not in use. Even with the security measures, it’s easy to forget that you’re surrounded by people serving time and 35ft barbed fences.

“It’s such an inspiring place to be,” says garden manager, Gary Gates. “I’ve worked in gardens most of my life, but it was here I really realised just how much of an impact the simple act of gardening can have.

“It can sometimes be a challenge to keep the girls interested though, so we like to experiment with what we’re growing. My current favourite is our cucamelons. They are tiny watermelons, the size of a grape with a citrus sweetness, and fingers crossed we get a good batch. It’s at moments like these, when they get that first taste of these fresh flavours or they see a vibrant plant flower, that you really see the excitement. It’s very satisfying.”

Reoffending has become one of the most pressing challenges facing society today, with 45.2% of adults reoffending within one year of being released. This obviously isn’t sustainable, and The Clink believes they’ve found the solution. Whether training at the restaurants or the gardens, the idea is simple: to reinstall confidence and develop the life skills of those who may never have had the opportunity.

“It’s so important to instil a sense of pride,” says governor Carlene Dixon. “Some of these women have faced fairly horrendous challenges before they’ve offended and often have low self-esteem. If you can build their confidence, you see a new person come to life. They realise that they are worth something after all, and have something to offer to society.

“It can be so good for reuniting families too. Those on the outside can see their mother, wife, daughter etc developing these new skills and it becomes easier to accept, forgive and overcome some of the problems that have pulled their family unit apart. For others, it simply offers a future that they weren’t aware was possible.”

Each prisoner trains for 40 hours per week, with courses available during the last six to 18 months of their sentence. Entry is dependent upon good behaviour, and progress is carefully monitored. If they commit to the course, they can earn NVQ and City and Guilds qualifications that will help them pursue careers on release.

“When offenders are ready, we work with local organisations on a three-tier release programme,” says Chris. “This sees trainees work maybe just outside the prison under supervision, then further away unpaid and, finally, if successful, they can take on fully-paid positions. It’s a way of integrating people into a non-institutionalised world that can otherwise prove daunting.”

With that, lunch is called and the ladies working the garden start to file inside. They’ll be back come the afternoon, rain or shine. It also signals the end of our visit to Send, and we’re whisked off to the imposing birthplace of the whole project.

The original spark

Whereas HMP Send is light, leafy and relatively intimate (300 inmates or so), HMP High Down is on another scale. A category B prison for over 1,000 male offenders, guests are greeted by thick concrete walls, rather than chain-link fencing.

However, it’s also home to a hidden gem of a restaurant that is open to the public daily. The brainchild of Alberto Crisci, then catering manager, The Clink came about from his realisation that formal training, qualifications and support for prisoners in finding a job after release was essential.

“It officially opened in 2009 but Alberto had already devised a monthly ‘gourmet lunch’ programme, where prisoners would cook for prospective employers,” says Chris. “It proved an inspired idea and over 500 prisoners have graduated from our training projects to date.”

Top chefs, such as Albert Roux, Giorgio Locatelli and Antonio Carluccio, have been quick to lend their support as ambassadors, holding regular workshops with inmates.

“We are trying to ensure they have all the skills to work in the very best restaurants and hotels,” says Chris. “It’s aspirational and that really encourages people to stick with it. Hospitality is not an easy industry and the hours are long, but there are so many opportunities available at the moment.”

Suffice to say, visiting a ‘prison’ restaurant is not quickly forgotten – and you can read our full review over the page.

In an increasingly cynical world, a day with The Clink leaves an overwhelming impression that this is the future. Instead of throwing away the keys, here is an organisation that excites, inspires and encourages people to find their place in the world – whatever their past mistakes.

• Having started at HMP High Down, between Sutton and Banstead, The Clink charity now operates four training restaurants, one horticulture scheme and one event catering company. For more about their work, visit theclinkcharity.org

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Read the Surrey Life review of The Clink restaurant here

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