Nikki and I went for lunch yesterday with some friends. Nothing very noteworthy about this aside from it being a Wednesday until I explain that we went for lunch in a prison.
Her Majesty’s Prison, High Down is a category B prison and has a restaurant called The Clink and serves a key role in the rehabilitation of its inmates.
The Clink operates as a charity and its great work is plain to see both in the demeanour of the inmates working in the restaurant and the top nosh that was on our plates.
I was excited to go along – not for the lunch but because it’s a prison. I have never been to a prison before and if my life continues as is, I never will. Plus, I have the usual bloke like interest in all things prison. As a kid, my central line train in to London each morning would snake passed Wormwood Scrubs and I never failed to peer up at the place and wonder.
And so, the whole experience yesterday was new and exciting. Passing through security with no possessions. Gates being unlocked by people whose keys swung from chains and in turn affixed to their belts. High walls all around. The place is immaculate and clean but foreboding as well.
And finally, we get in to the restaurant (via another heavy and locked door) and there it was; what we had come to see. Not our dinner but the prisoners. There’s a sort of voyeuristic pleasure to see the people who are locked up and living a world far away from my safe life. This isn’t anything to be proud of but I imagine is perfectly normal. Prison being such a part of our lives – mostly as a mere statistic but also in our imaginations of course with favourites like: Porridge, The Shawshank Redemption, Prison Break, Midnight Express, The Escape from Alcatraz… and any number of TV documentaries on life inside.
Our server was called Shaun. A young lad, I’d say mid-twenties, so not much older than my boys. He had an easy manner but a somewhat nervous smile. I smiled at him and was polite but mindful of not being condescending. As well as ordering our food, I was desperate to engage him in conversation. I wanted to know his story and understand how he had ended up working in restaurant with no alcohol and locked doors all around.
I didn’t need to be told not to ask about his offence but I did establish that he grew up in Shepherds Bush and where I went to school. That he went to a school that we played football against and that his dad knew Dennis Wise who had attended Christopher Wren School and features in Eclipsed. Thereby a connection was made and it struck me that Shaun is no different to the boys that I had gone to school with. And this makes for a salutary tale which makes me feel both sad and hopeful.
My school was a Catholic comprehensive school, largely made up of boys of Irish immigrants from all over London. In my year, a boy called Declan was as tough as nails and went on to a 7 year stretch for a robbery offence. John on the other hand, was a clever and quiet boy. His dad was an Irish builder doing tarmac drives. John went on to Cambridge, became a City accountant, married a doctor and his son is now at Eton. I don’t know what became of Declan but I hope he is still with us and that he is well.
I tell this story to highlight my bond with Shaun but also to express my hope for his future and to commend The Clink. Because, as politicians continually bleat, it is not just the schools that we attend that determines our future. There are myriad factors that create a life, not to mention our own life choices of course.
And yesterday was revelatory to me because I realised how closed off and forgotten our prisons are. For good reason in terms of security but this closure also fails our society, when men like Shaun have served their time and come to be released.
Charity’s nowadays are under more scrutiny than ever; neatly demonstrated by Oxfam, currently being accused of being politicised and for what it pays its CEO. The greatest problem, though, for charities is being heard. Too many good causes for our collective generosity to meet.
Nothing visionary in my noting the importance of kindness and of prison playing a role in rehabilitation. But seeing it in practise was heartening.
The food and the service was top notch. This cause is great and we all felt better on the way out and not just because there was no alcohol and none of us had a pudding.
There are few charities that have the reach of The Clink because the whole of society is served if we have a prison service that is supported and understood.
Check out www.theclinkcharity.org