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.
“The prisoners make everything” he declared proudly “even Christmas pudding”.
“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.