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What the Clink made us think.

In a week where the departing Chief Inspector of Prisons criticised the government for failing on its ”rehabilitation revolution” promise, we look at the role employment and employers can play in cutting reoffending and curbing the growth of the UK’s prison population, and at the benefits this can bring to us all.

If you’ve never been to prison it can feel just a little disappointing going to the Brixton Clink. There are clues it’s not another smart London restaurant – the uniformed frisking on the way in, sturdy chains and fobs on managers’ belts, ‘sweat boxes’ idling in the yard – but inside and on the receiving end of Trip Advisor commended service and food, these soon fade.

While it would have been fascinating to glimpse prison life last week at the Clink, listening instead to perspectives on prisoner rehabilitation was enthralling. Perspectives including that of prison philanthropist Lady Edwina ‘Eddie’ Grosvenor, who developed her fascination with prisons working in one in Nepal and who over a decade later is a founding Trustee of the Clink Charity and advocates for prison reform at the highest level. Perspectives on how a Clink restaurant works from management and trainees. The female ex-offender point of view from Connect member Jocelyn Hillman, who founded Working Chance to help female ex-offenders find jobs. And the employer perspective from Dennis Phillips, who offered insight into how high-street chain Timpson, through its Foundation and Academies, now has 10% of its workforce made up of ex-offenders.

Half of all prisoners are back inside UK prisons within a year of release but not all prisoners are the same. Eddie, Jocelyn, Dennis and Nicole – General Manager at the Brixton Clink, were keen to point out there are people who should stay inside, for whom there is or should be no rehabilitation. Instead, their focus is individuals who can contribute to, not cost society when rehabilitation succeeds – women and men who’ve often made a “mistake” and paid for it or whose damaging formative years have led inexorably to incarceration.

So what’s the solution?

As Eddie put it it’s “not revolutionary”. Treat people like human beings. Prepare them practically and emotionally for life outside. Offer proper support beyond the prison gate. Which is what the government does right? Varying degrees of frustration were voiced at the lack of coherent provision of rehabilitation services, services that can cut the cost of reoffending. A Clink employee backed this up anecdotally; in three months of leaving messages for his probation officer regarding his imminent release he’d yet to hear back.

For some ex-offenders this is about reintegration. Jocelyn pointed that many women are in prison for things many of us have done – one drink too many before driving home, a line of coke or joint on a night out, ‘taking’ something from work. The difficulty of this reintegration should not be underestimated, however, particularly as ex-offenders “have few rights” especially in the world of work. For others its about entering an unfamiliar world a million miles from the dysfunctional ones they lived in before prison. Clink employee Simon, now in his forties, described the pleasure of feeling “what it’s like to have a work ethic” something he’d not experienced in his pre-prison life.

There are of rewards for leaders and organisations that offer ex-offenders a second chance. From it being a new way to find talented employees including in sectors with skills shortages to bringing “diversity beyond your comfort zone” into offices. From seeing individuals written off reinvent themselves – Dennis talked of a former “lifer” now successfully employed at Timpson – to knowing you are helping reduce the cost to us all of not rehabilitating ex-offenders.

Inevitably, there are challenges too.

To succeed in the workplace ex-offenders may need considerable support. Timpson will meet prisoners at the prison gate on discharge and help in the early weeks put in place the infrastructure outside work required to function effectively inside work. Women prisoners and especially mums often have hugely complex needs; Working Chance supports them every step of the way. Employers also need to consider existing employees – who may be victims of crimes similar to those a new colleague has committed, while paying attention to ex-offenders who are rarely helped by being reminded of the crime they’ve committed by others at every turn. Inevitably also ex-offenders may re-offend – it’s a risk. And we cannot forget the victims.

As leaders we can play a small part in helping tackle this complex problem but Eddie suggested that for real progress the entrenched mind-sets of policy makers must be tackled. Jocelyn echoed this looking forward hopefully to a day where David Cameron (or Boris!) employs an ex-prisoner as diary secretary not through pity but because here is someone right for the job who deserves a second chance.

The Clink has three restaurants, an outside catering business, kitchen gardens and big plans for what more it can do through building bridges between the outside world prisoners must find a place in on release and the inside world of the prison. Working Chance continues to help women into work in more organisations in more sectors. Timpson assists other businesses (including big names like Halfords and Greggs) in how to identify, train and employ prison talent. As Eddie said however, “Not all businesses have to do this”, it’s a choice although for those that do even helping one person not reoffend can have an extraordinary impact on society, communities and families.

My taxi driver on the way to the Clink had a life shaped by avoiding become a career criminal like his dad (who had spent 20 years inside), his uncles and many of his childhood friends who he’d visited in prisons including Brixton. His verdict on rehabilitation? It’s that or end up “institutionalised, still at it or dead”.

A big thank you to the Clink, Working Chance, Timpson, and the two members who offered their help as business mentors to inmates at Brixton Clink at the end of our visit.


Written by Helen Trevaskis, Connect Programme Design & Facilitation, Wavelength


Connect is our leadership programme that inspires, develops and connects leaders whose professional paths would not normally cross. With clients from large corporates, social enterprises, charities and the public sector, we bring together a diverse community of 120 top leaders to learn alongside and from each other.

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