Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Clink Prison Restaurant

I always joked that if I were raided by the police for running The Underground Restaurant then I'd have to start a prison pop up. Last year I visited Her Majesty's Prison High Down, located on the outskirts of South London in Sutton, Surrey. I've never been to a jail in Britain before.
My only previous prison visit was near Cuzco in Peru; I went because I'd heard that the prisoners made chess sets of the Spaniards versus the Incas. The Cuzco prison was an experience never to be forgotten: once inside there is no security, you are on your own with the prisoners. The prison is laid out like a a dark Disneyland; a microcosm of Peruvian society minus the women and children. Our self-appointed guide, a limping young man who tried to sell us some home-made wrist ties, took us to 'his place',  a squalid and druggy urban section in high rise flats. 
Other parts of the prison resembled a Peruvian village; folksy huts and men weaving from large looms in the open air. The most interesting area was the low-rise concrete block, covered with graffiti and wall art depicting Marx, Lenin and Chairman Mao, where the 'Senderos Luminosos' or Shining Path revolutionaries lived. These political prisoners were, during the time of my visit (1989), reported to be killing tourists around the country. These men stuck together, separate from the rest of the prison, considering themselves a cut above the merely criminal. It was very hard to talk to them. Every question was answered with a glassy-eyed impenetrable political rant. The men I talked to said the media reports of revolutionaries killing tourists was untrue; that it was bandits, but the government preferred to blame it on them. "We have no interest in killing tourists" one claimed. The wall of dogma only broke down when I asked the leader if he missed his family. His eyes filled with tears, his voice dropped "Yes I do. They live far away, they can't visit". They had no idea how long they would be in prison as mostly they were held without trial.
Outside H.M.High Down was a 'visitor's centre' where entire families, women with babies in pushchairs, hung about. Somehow this shocked me, you forget that men in prison have children who must be traumatised by their fathers' incarceration.
My purpose was to visit a restaurant, The Clink, part of a project for retraining prisoners, teaching them to cook, hopefully leading to a career and employment in the hospitality industry once they have done their time.
I have no pictures. Well I did but I was forced to delete them on the way out by a troop of prison guards who were standing over me and watching me do it. I wasn't even allowed to keep a photo of the entrance or my security pass 'H.M.High Down' because, as the guard explained "this information could be used for escape purposes or to copy the security pass". 
Passing a sign saying "Security (today's date): High Alert', I was led through the grey and sober prison buildings up to the heavily bolted and padded door of the restaurant. The contrast inside was like the passage from black and white to colour in the Wizard of Oz: a sleek, modern, discreetly lit and designed restaurant. Polite waiters sit you down on the comfortable banquettes, you are offered menus and water. You could be in any Michelin starred restaurant. Looking more closely however, there are differences: the cutlery is plastic, there is no alcohol and the wait staff are all male. As much as possible is sourced from within High Down and other prisons creating a self-sufficient circle of enterprise. The furniture is made by HM Frankland, the fruit juice is supplied direct from Colombia by ex-cocaine farmers, while the vegetables are grown by the prisoners on 'farm' duty, in poly tunnels.
I talked to Kate Ruby, the passionate coordinator of this programme, about the importance of food on behaviour. Good nutrition improves mental health and many inmates have never had a good diet, coming from difficult backgrounds. A whopping 87% of the prison population has drug problems. The exception, diet-wise, perhaps, being those of Caribbean descent, whose mothers tend to cook good food from scratch. Many of the kitchen staff are black.
Head Chef Al Crisci, who was awarded an MBE for his pioneering work at The Clink, sat with us and explained the provenance of the ingredients, they buy fresh fish from the fisherman at Selsea for instance.
"The prisoners make everything" he declared proudly "even Christmas pudding".
As a working environment for a civilian, it's strange for Al to live without a mobile phone: they are strictly disallowed at The Clink in case a prisoner gets hold of one.
I started with a well seasoned tomato and red pepper soup, some freshly baked bread with butter. For the main course I had the Grilled Catch of The Day, a perfectly cooked Dover sole with Caribbean style vegetables and baby roasted potatoes which only cost £6. The prices are incredibly cheap for the quality of the food. The pudding consisted of a trio of desserts, including a witty take on miniature toffee apples, the equal to any fine dining restaurant.
I was sat with a group of people. Conversation ranged from our jobs to other prisons, including 'celebrity' convicts, with a mention of where Soham murderer Ian Huntley was held. One of my dining companions, an older lady, was an official visitor. She was very posh and genteel but had compassion towards the prisoners:
 "Any of us could be in this position" she explained "I always feel, there but for the grace of god go I".
Al accompanied me to the outside, and confessed that there was resistance to The Clink from some of the prison officers, the old argument of punishment versus rehabilitation. Is The Clink a soft option? Al pointed to the fact that many prisoners re offend, because they can't find a job on the outside. There obviously has to be a great deal of trust, because a kitchen inevitably is a dangerous place, with fire and knives. It's a earned privilege to work at The Clink restaurant. Those who show special interest in food while working at the ordinary prison canteen, can apply for the programme. The hospitality industry is chronically and perpetually short staffed, so this is ideal training with a strong possibility of subsequent employment, always a difficulty for 'ex-cons'.

Support The Clink project here. Trainees need employment, mentoring and further training while the charity needs money and kitchen equipment. Hopefully this valuable project will roll out to other prisons. 


  1. I watched the BBC television programme about The Clink restaurant last night.
    This is an excellent project, proper rehabilitation for those that want it,and well worthy of support.

  2. Really interesting post, this one... I too watched the programme about it last night, and I think it's great that there are some people who are willing to give an opportunity to young adults who have been written off again and again. It was great to see that one chap go and do a trial in a restaurant and get a job at the end of it - would that it were the same for all of them.

    It's also great to know that the food in The Clink is of a high standard - clearly, Al is doing great work there, and long may it continue!

  3. Excellent post - need to also catch up on the BBC prog. Very interesting and commendable project x

  4. Great programme. You have lead a very interesting life! Great Post x

  5. Great article - really enjoyed it, was initially upset at the lack of pics but the descriptions were more than adequate - look forward to watching the documentary...

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  7. I have been meaning to comment on this great post, memorable both for the nightmare vision of the Cuzco prison and the Shining Path inmates, and for info on the The Clink. What a bold/interesting project.


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