Given unprecedented access to Strangeways prison in Manchester, Ian Wylie discovered its notorious idleness has turned to hard work and reform
Possibly the most exclusive white tablecloth restaurant in the north-west, Crofters employs some of the most attentive, polite and pristinely presented waiters to have served me a meal. Diners need to book well in advance for the full ? la carte menu, yet the chefs are willing to cook to order.
Just a shame you're unlikely to get a table. Why? Plastic cutlery is the giveaway. Because you won't find Crofters in Yellow Pages, but inside HMP Manchester ? aka Strangeways. The chefs and waiters are all prisoners. And my fellow diners are their guards.
Britain's largest high-security, Category A prison has long been a touchstone for argument about the purpose of prisons. Following riots there 21 years ago, Strangeways became such a byword for what was wrong with the penal system, it had to be rebuilt and rebranded.
Now, despite being home to some of the country's most dangerous offenders, HMP Manchester is pioneering a "working prison" model that aims to give inmates an experience of real workplaces ? and increase their chances of finding employment and going straight once released.
The Manchester model is one which government wants the rest of its prison estate to follow ? turning from places of idleness into places of hard work and reform. More than a third of prisoners are unemployed at the time of imprisonment and, for many, this is their first glimpse of a workplace.
And yet the hardest job of all remains finding an answer to the question: what is the purpose of work in prisons? Is it for punishing or reforming characters? A mechanism to make prisoners pay for victim support out of their earnings? Is the point of bringing in private sector employers to give prisoners better "real world" experience ? or to exploit them as low-cost, non-unionised labour?
The history of work in prisons is mostly a numbing tale of tedious tasks: breaking rocks, sewing mailbags, wiring plugs. In the US, some states use prisoners to fight fires. In the UK, most inmates experience nothing more interesting than "noddy shop" work where the purpose of repetitive jobs is to keep them occupied. At HMP Manchester, the regime aims to offer something more redemptive. The majority of prisoners work in the Croft unit, a 10-minute walk and several locked gates away from the residential wings. The Croft contains a laundry, print shop, industrial kitchen and waste management unit as well as Crofters restaurant. It's essentially an industrial estate ? just one that happens to be surrounded by a very large wall and some ferocious german shepherds.
Within a fortnight of arrival all but Category A prisoners are expected to start work in return for vocational training and wages of around ?10 a week.
The kitchen is run entirely by prison workers ? around 30 per shift ? making meals for 1,350 inmates on a budget of just ?1.99 per person per day. When they're not manipulating large bags of frozen carrots and peas around stainless steel worktops, they're in an adjoining classroom improving their numeracy and literacy, training for NVQs in catering and hospitality. Some are even being trained to be assessors.
Funding has been secured to build a bakery to supply loaves, artisan breads and danish pastries ? saving the prison ?90,000 on its bakery contract. Likewise, the restaurant has taken between ?80,00 and ?90,000 in just 12 months.
"Most staff are chuffed to bits," says Farouk, speaking of the prison officers who eat at Crofters. Eight months into a four-year sentence, he once ran a chain of Indian takeaways. Now he is studying for a Level 2 NVQ in hospitality management, and trains some of the restaurant's newest recruits in the preparation of Indian dishes. "Because we don't have fresh ingredients, you don't get 100% of the flavour. But given what we have, we do a remarkable job. It's extremely hard work, but we get paid the most here in Crofters, and that helps us buy what we need."
Some of the industrial units bid for outside contracts. The kitchen supplies buffets to the local council, while the laundry handles washing for Greater Manchester Police Authority, Lancashire Fire and Rescue, University of Central Lancashire at Preston and another eight prisons.
Above the hum of 50kg washing machines there's laughter as someone discovers a dead (but very clean) mouse at the bottom of a basket of Nottingham Prison bedsheets.
Last year the laundry turned over ?550,000 and will soon become a seven-day-a-week operation. The new print shop, which replaced a textiles unit ? the prison decided there were fewer opportunities in textiles ? has ?1m of new equipment, including the latest Heidelberg presses. It's on course to make ?600,000 this year, thanks to contracts with the Prison Service and Ministry of Justice.
"It's the physical exercise and fresh air that count for me," says another prisoner, Andrew, of the industrial waste unit where he works. "There's a routine and it makes for a shorter day."
HMP Manchester's successful working prison model has played a part in the government's decision, earlier this year, to renew the Prison Service's contract to run it. "All we are doing is providing choices and opportunities," says governor Richard Vince, "and we know that where people are active, engaged, doing something worthwhile and getting a sense of improvement and prospects, you have a much more stable prison.
"But we are also giving people skills to get a job and not come back," says Vince, who points to the prison's increasing focus on service sector jobs. "The green paper (Ministry of Justice's Breaking the Cycle) represented a philosophy we had, anyway, but it has given us more leverage it is now part of the government agenda."
From next year, for example, HMP Manchester will work more closely with JobCentre Plus, helping prisoners find jobs and monitoring their progress.
The UK prison population currently stands at more than 80,000 and reoffending rates top 70% in some prisons. The aim of justice minister Ken Clarke is to increase the 8,700 prisoners working in jail-based industries to 10,000 by 2015 and 20,000 by 2020. The Ministry of Justice points to HMP Kirkham and HMP Maidstone alongside HMP Manchester as early adopters of longer, more regular working hours.
There is a financial appeal to working prisoners, too. At Altcourse Prison near Liverpool, for example, a proportion of wages earned by the prisoners working 40 hours a week in a metal workshop goes to fund services for victims of crime.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, currently trundling through parliament, will expand this ? the government hopes to generate around ?1m per year for victim support.
How easily or readily other prisons adapt their practices to accommodate working prisone
rs is another matter.
HMP Manchester is a complex local/high-security prison hybrid, constrained by old Victorian buildings. But it has a governor who sees enough value in offering prisoners a fuller working experience, that it has altered its security procedures to allow some prisoners in Crofters, the kitchen and laundry, to have meal and rest breaks in their place of work rather than being returned to residential wings, so they can emulate a more normal working environment.
Frances Cook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, reckons other prisons will be more resistant. "The government wants prisoners to do an honest day's work, earn money so they can pay tax, and give something back to victims," she says. "We absolutely support what government is trying to do, but it keeps coming up against this immoveable object, the Prison Service."
In Cook's opinion, only greater private sector involvement will give prisoners the real working experience they need. The Ministry of Justice has set up an advisory group to figure out how to increase the involvement of private companies inside the UK's 131 prisons, without undercutting businesses on the outside. Eight employers ? including Virgin, National Grid, and Marks & Spencer ? back the effort.
Back at HMP Manchester, governor Vince maintains that the laundry, printing and catering contracts, managed under the supervision of his staff, provide meaningful work experience of deadlines, quality assurance and meeting customer and client demands. Stepping stones towards readiness for full-time employment, he says, are as important as successful business outcomes.
For the Howard League, it's not enough. Cook tells the story of Barbed graphic design studio, set up in HMP Coldingley as a joint venture with the Prison Service in 2005. All 11 prisoners involved were given the same terms and conditions as Howard League staff. But it ended when, according to Cook, the Prison Service informed HMRC that prisoners couldn't pay tax.
"Paying tax is critical, and integral to the working experience," argues Cook. "Stopping them is for the same reason the Prison Service doesn't want them to be employed by external companies ? they don't want them to gain employment rights because that means they would have to be treated with respect."
Currently, prisoners working inside prisons do not have employment rights, such as the right to strike. The Ministry of Justice confirms it has no intention of extending them. Until then, many prisoners may labour under the illusion that while real work is rewarding, crime still pays better.