Growing up, I don’t think I’ve ever had any aspirations of spending much time in prison. I’ve seen too many Louis Theroux documentaries to ever before consider voluntarily stepping foot inside one. So why, you might ask, did I choose to spend a lunch time in one? Well… because The Clink Charity have recently opened up a restaurant in partnership with Her Majesty’s Prison Service at Brixton Prison, and honestly… I just couldn’t resist!
Now you might question why I would want criminals cooking me my lunch. It’s a good question. The truth of the matter is these inmates are on the final stretch of their sentences, and soon they’re going to find themselves back in society where they will need to find jobs and livelihoods. Statistics show that in April 2012, 160,000 people who had been cautioned, convicted or released from prison had reoffended within a year [Radio 4 ‘Reoffenders’ Transcript] and one of the most common reasons is because they haven’t been able to set their lives straight with work after release – some have no choice but to slip back into that life of crime (My recent Netflix binge of Orange Is The New Black taught me this). Without skills with which to get a job, these offenders have little chance of finding employment, and with the added stigma that comes with being a convict, their chances decrease even further.
And so The Clink charity represents a genuine opportunity for change, offering prisoners the chance to gain food preparation, food service and cleaning qualifications as well as experience within an exciting, operational business and in-depth guidance to find full-time employment within the hospitality industry upon release. The restaurant follows The Clink’s Five Step Programme that has been successfully implemented at award-winning The Clink Restaurant at HMP High Down and at The Clink Cymru at HMP Cardiff, providing qualifications and training to up to 24 prisoners at any one time , equipping them with the skills and tools to secure employment upon their release.
It’s a fantastic idea, and one which in theory could save millions of tax payer’s money. And if I get a tasty lunch out of it too, then who am I to dispute it? And so, yesterday afternoon I visited HMP Brixton.
My reservation was for 1pm, but due to it being a prison, this meant we needed to arrive half an hour early to go through security checks. Unfortunately this didn’t happen because the world and his wife chose to take to the roads at lunch time and we sat in stationary traffic for 10 minutes before opting to cut our losses as get several different tubes and a bus instead. We arrived just in time,. We had to surrender our phones (hence the lack of my own pictures – hopefully my descriptions will suffice) as well as any other electric items, and cash over the value of £50.
They don’t take card payments at this restaurant. It’s strictly cheque only. Annoyingly I had a reservation for this place a month ago and the cheque book that I had ordered especially didn’t arrive in time, and so I had to rebook.
You surrender your ID at this point, and then get lead into the restaurant. In comparison to the rest of the prison which as you might expect is pretty grim (highlighted even more by yesterday’s miserable weather) the restaurant itself is quite plush. The tables are glass, and set with origami napkins and wine glasses, the colour scheme is white and blue which gives a sense of calm to the environment, and the walls have a very pretty wooden brick pattern built into them. It’s only when you look to the windows and see the bars layered over the glass and the barbed wire lining the courtyard that you are reminded that you are in fact in a prison. That, and that fact that you are given plastic cutlery rather than metal.
I don’t know what I expected when it came to the food. I suppose I thought it would be staple dishes… Bangers & Mash, Fish & Chips, maybe a burger? Usually before I go to a restaurant I check out the menu or read a review on Time Out, but there aren’t many reviews of this place available on the web… nd so when I read the menu, I was surprised to see a selection of some reasonably complex dishes (and by complex, I mean I wouldn’t be able to cook them myself). The starters included a Carpaccio of Venison, a Pumpkin Soup & a Thai Fish Cake while the mains offered a choice of Pork Belly, Confit Duck, Pappardelle, Risotto and a Tuna Salad.
I chose to start with a vanilla infused Goats Cheese with caramelised plum (£5.50) which came with a side of thick, warm homemade bread. Presentation was fantastic, nothing short of what I’d expect in a fine dining restaurant – pretty, with pleasing colours and an un-intimidating portion size. When it came to taste, the goat’s cheese was creamy and not too salty, and the plum was sweet, complementing the cheese well. Josh chose the Thai Fish Cake (£5.50) which arrived piping hot and in a decent sized portion. The cake was crispy on the outside and well seasoned. The fish has a good texture, lots of flavour and wasn’t too try as can sometimes be the case with fishcakes. We both scraped our plates clean.
My £13.25 main of Duck Breast was a little strange. Although delicious, it combined four elements that I’m not so sure went together as a whole. The very well cooked duck (nicely pink and easy to cut with a plastic fork!) was placed upon a bed of creamy risotto, and capped with a few spears of vegetable tempura with a side bowl of a spring onion, chilli and sesame seed soy sauce. Individually they were all good, and as you’d imagine, the duck and the soy made a good pair, as did the duck and the risotto and the soy and the vegetable tempura… but the tempura didn’t really work with the risotto, and the risotto certainly didn’t work with the soy. It was all just a bit much. The harmony was lacking, but I can’t fault the cooking skills of the chefs.
Josh’s £12.50 pork dish was a mixed bag too; while the pork belly was tender and topped with a beautiful coating of crunchy crackling, the pork medallions wrapped in pancetta were on the dry side and a real match for the plastic cutlery. The potatoes were well cooked however, and the cooked slices of apple brought the flavours together nicely.
The service was polite, attentive and sociable. Our waiter was happy to talk to us about his experience working in The Clink, telling us that it’s a 40 hour job and he takes home £14 a week. It’s not much, but he told us there’s nothing to spend it on in there anyway – he does the job for himself and the skills he is gaining from the experience. He’ll be released from prison in 5 months and will take with him qualifications including a GCSE in Maths & English, skills in plumbing and mechanics as well as a GNVQ in hospitality, all thanks to the programmes run within the prison. If those skills help him acquire a job upon his release and in turn prevent him from reoffending, I don’t think you can argue that this isn’t a great system.
You can visit The Clink at HMP Brixton for either Breakfast or Lunch – to apply for a reservation, click here. There is an estimated 6 month wait for a reservation, subject to security checks.