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Al Crisci And The Clink- 11 Years In.

Custodial Review (CR)            You first envisaged the idea of The Clink restaurant chain in 2005, how did you think it would develop?

AC        I announced the idea when I was being presented with an award at the BBC Food and Farming Awards for the Gourmet Lunch programme. This was a programme I had created a few years earlier in order for me to invite hospitality employers into the prison.

These four course Gourmet Lunches were aimed at senior managers, people that could make a decision and they began to break down the barriers that exist such as “He’s been in prison so I’m not even going to consider employing him.” Once they’d seen that prisoners are just like any other person they began offering the prisoners their business cards. This started opening up a lot of doors that had previously been firmly closed. This became important because even though the prisoners were getting their qualifications in prison kitchens they just weren’t getting jobs on the outside.

I decided that rather than presenting fabulous food for 10-12 people four times a year, I’d offer it to 60-80 people every day. The other thing I wanted to do was take the training we were offering in the main prison kitchen up to another level, because the training was based just on producing the standard prison menu. This menu restricted the variety trainees could learn to produce as there is no way they were going to make fresh pasta or ice cream for 1100 prisoners. It was all designed as an opportunity to offer such a highly trained person to potential employers that when they went out to interviews, their level of training would outweigh the fact they were an ex-prisoner. At the Clink they get better training than they would at college doing an NVQ Level 2.

I also wanted the public to change their attitude towards ex-offenders. 11 years ago there was a very negative attitude to them. I wanted the attitude to change to, “so they have committed a crime, they have deservedly gone to prison…. fine” Once they have finished their sentence it should be an opportunity to start again if they want to lead an honest life.


CR        How has your role changed since you first started?

AC        I first announced the idea 11 years ago and we opened the first Clink in 2009. That was 3 ½ years from first idea to full operation. Initially, I did everything. I taught to cook and serve, take bookings, everything involving running the restaurant. I was in charge of the whole project.

Since then, my role has changed considerably. We now have a CEO, and run four restaurants with two more in the pipeline. We have an events arm and a gardening project to produce fresh food. My title and role now is ‘Director of the Brand’. With responsibility for maintaining the original ethos and standards, as well as opening new restaurants. The CEO, Chris Moore, and I  design the new restaurants, and visit new sites. We then hand that over to the operations team. I’m also Director of Events which means serving the general public in and around London to include weddings and other receptions. At the events I work with ex-offenders, though serving prisoners prepare the food up to a certain stage. In addition we work with homeless people  from the Centrepoint charity as well as students from Westminster Kingsway College. These form my team at the events.

CR        What’s your role at Highdown prison now?

AC I      I’m now seconded from the MoJ to The Clink full time. I ceased to be the Catering Manager at the prison in around 2012.

CR        How has the training of the prisoners changed since The Clink first opened?

AC        The training is the same though it is over more sites now. We have remained a Registered Centre with City & Guilds. All the new sites have become Satellite Centres. Highdown Clink remains the main training centre and handles the administration of the project. The courses are the same, the levels we train to are the same, however we have a much bigger team spread over more sites. We have trainers at all the sites, and our own staff have been trained to be assessors. We have a full time IQA for quality assurance to check the quality of the training and sign it off. Essentially it is the same as what I’d set up with more people and more sites.

CR        Has the alcohol policy changed?

AC        We continue the policy of not serving alcohol at any of our restaurants. A lot of our prisoners have alcohol issues so why should we put them at risk? We haven’t found this to be a problem, even in our restaurants outside the wall such as Cardiff. The fact that there is no alcohol has not affected their attractiveness at all. The Cardiff restaurant is the number one restaurant in Cardiff.

CR        What is the gardening project?

AC        One of my passions is that we try to use seasonal, British fruit and vegetables produced in the prison estate. You can’t get more local than inside the prison walls! When asparagus is in season we use that, and strawberries throughout the summer for example. Where we can’t grow it ourselves we will use local producers from near the prisons. We always try to use local butchers and greengrocers rather than large multinationals from whom you just don’t know the provenance and we want to support local producers.

We also purchase pork and lamb from East Sutton Park prison where they rear rare breed pigs.          

We run a gardening project at HMP Send where they grow vegetables and supply fresh eggs to us. We have renovated eight large poly tunnels and have put in a full time gardener trainer who works for The Clink. Through the growing months they grow all the produce for the Highdown and Brixton Clink. In Cardiff they grow produce at Cardiff Prison and in Prescoed prison they produce eggs that we use in our restaurant. Manchester has only been going a year but we are preparing to set up a garden outside the wall. Next year they will be growing their own produce as well.

CR        Has the type of job your offenders can get after the course changed at all?

AC Some end up as Baristas however some of them are working at top restaurants and hotels in London. We have graduates at the Lancaster Hotel in London, The Cavendish Hotel, The Renaissance Hotel, Roast in borough market and I recently learned that one of them from Brixton Prison had just passed his interview at the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane. In Manchester one of our female offenders has started working at the Michelin starred Northcote Manor restaurant, while in Cardiff we have seven people working at the Millennium Centre, a premier centre for the arts and opera in the city.

CR        With the placements you’ve been able to make, how well have you managed to tackle the stigma around prisoners rehabilitating?

AC        Considerably, the Clink has become well known in the hospitality industry. We’ve won lots of industry awards, these are not charity awards, they are full industry awards. We won the Best Education and Training at the Catey Awards. The Sutton Clink won Best Restaurant the year it was opened and has won every year since. We are very well respected in the industry and I don’t think any other project has done as much to change the public’s perception of people who have been to prison. We have also been in a documentary that has been shown twice and been in an Inside Story programme. It has been very hard to measure but in the nine years since we began at Highdown, we’ve done at least as much as any other project to change the perception of what prisoners can do given the chance.

CR        Do you have a large waiting list of prisoners who want to work in The Clink establishments?

AC        Funnily enough, no. By the time we apply our own criteria, which includes not having anyone on remand, we can’t have anyone less than six months to go and any more than 18 months to serve, prisoners must be eligible to be returned to a UK address (so can’t be detainees) and Security must be happy with them as they will be working with the general public. By the time that’s all been applied it whittles down the pool that we can choose from. So anyone who applies and who meets the criteria then we will offer them a place. We are not selective beyond that.  

Security won’t clear someone who has been violent, has dangerous psychological problems, or has tried to escape for example. However, a lot of the people we take on are repeat and prolific offenders. The risk of them reoffending for many of them is very high. We measure our success on reoffending rates so if for the last 10 years they have been in and out of prison but nothing has been done to intervene, and they haven’t engaged in any reoffending programmes such as The Clink, then the chances are they would have reoffended if we had not intervened. If once they have completed the Clink Programme they do not re- offend, we have achieved our goals.

CR        Is that how the Prison Service measures your ‘usefulness’? You’re now more on the rehabilitation side really now aren’t you?

AC        Yes, I was a catering manager at Highdown originally. The Clink is all about reducing reoffending not about catering. The Gourmet Lunches idea was about reducing reoffending. Up until my secondment I was doing both. The Clink is not just another restaurant,  it is about reducing reoffending and improving society.

To this end we also run a mentoring system. Mentors, who are employed by the Clink, get to know the prisoners while they are still serving. They start working with the prisoners during their last 3 months inside to find out what their needs are when they get out. This might be to get a job, somewhere to live, alcohol or drugs rehabilitation, whatever that might be. Then the mentor meets them at the gate, and carry on the relationship for a minimum of six months and up to 12 months however sometimes it’s even longer.

Mentoring is a key part of the programme, because if we just trained the prisoners and said, “See you later!” at the end of their term, they need to feed themselves and house themselves and may otherwise turn to crime to achieve that. 

CR        How many people have been through The Clink programme?

AC        About 500 have been through since it began and that is about to grow very quickly because for the first two years there was just one restaurant, the third year there were two, the fifth year there were three, in the sixth there are now four and we’re planning on opening two more. We aim at working with 500 a year at full capacity.

CR        Thanks for speaking to Custodial Review.      

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