No bars to entry: helping ex-offenders back to work

15 March 2019 by

In our second feature on the staffing crisis in hospitality, Emma Lake looks at the charities helping ex-offenders back into the workplace, offering a supportive route to work that gives employers a source of enthusiastic and skilled new staff who are grateful to be given a second chance

For some employers, the declaration of a criminal offence, particularly one that had resulted in a spell behind bars, would see a job application tossed into the wastepaper basket. But many others have found in ex-offenders a workforce eager to grasp an opportunity.

Alex Head, founder of catering company Social Pantry, tries to ensure that 10% of her workforce are ex-offenders. She says: "I want a driven, ambitious and motivated workforce and to recruit the best. Some of my ex-offenders

are the best, some are brilliant and dedicated. They don't all work out and it's not a fairy tale, but ultimately, you're making a difference. If you're changing just one person's life, then surely that's worth it."

Alex Head of the Social Pantry
Alex Head of the Social Pantry

There are several charities, including the Clink, Only a Pavement Away, Switchback, Key4Life and the Right Course, working with the hospitality industry to provide routes into employment for prison leavers. Perhaps the most well-known is the Clink, which provides in-prison training to prepare inmates for a future career in hospitality.

Chief executive Chris Moore explains: "We've had many, many success stories. We've had guys who have never cooked before and 18 months on they're in five-star hotels, Michelin-starred restaurants, even the Royal Navy.

"The catering industry is a great fit because there's a skills shortage, staff work shifts and it's a tight-knit family. It's a forgiving industry; everyone takes everyone for how they are and who they are."

An untapped resource

With the UK's departure from the European Union (potentially) on the horizon, the industry faces tighter immigration laws, or at the very least putting off potential European workers. Now more than ever ex-offenders represent

a skilled workforce that could be a lifeline when the industry may face having to find 900,000 new workers each year.

Having launched its first restaurant in HMP High Down, Sutton, in 2009, the Clink has expanded to HMP Cardiff, HMP Brixton and HMP Styal women's prison in Cheshire, as well as launching a café in Manchester City Centre and a central production training kitchen at HMP Downview, Sutton, to supply its event business. The charity also has gardens at both HMP High Down and HMP Send women's prison in Surrey, with produce delivered to the restaurants daily.

The charity takes prisoners with six to 18 months left to serve and provides the training for them to achieve a City & Guilds Level 2 NVQ qualification in foodservice, food preparation, food hygiene and horticulture.

When prisoners are approaching release, the Clink facilitates introductions and interviews with potential employers, but it is up to them to impress. On release, the charity's support workers are on hand to provide assistance, whether that is with securing permanent accommodation, setting up bank accounts, liaising with probation services or dealing with other challenges that occur.

It's a programme that has proved successful. Moore explains: "We have more than 1,800 graduates working for more than 280 employers. We've dramatically reduced the reoffending rate [by 49.6%, according to statistics released in April 2018] as well as helping an industry that has a major skills shortage.

"Our Clink graduates have been classically trained. We don't cook with packets and tins, we get the whole animal in on the bone; we make pasta, bread, sauces from scratch. They can go into any four- or five-star hotel or Michelin-starred restaurant and hold their own."

Take a chance

It was a visit to the Clink's restaurant in Brixton that convinced Philip Corrick, executive chef of the Royal Automobile Club, to take on a graduate. While the first recruit to the club's London outpost didn't remain long-term, its second has been in position for two years, even starring in Bake Off: The Professionals. Corrick explains that he "came in and really settled down into the team".

Corrick says: "The first thing that struck me was that these guys are motivated, and from there on we decided to take somebody. You've got to get over the fact that they've been criminals, that they've done something wrong. The thing is, in life, everybody makes mistakes. Sadly, some of these guys made big mistakes and got locked up for it. But they've done their time; they shouldn't have to live with it for the rest of their lives. It's about giving them a chance and a break, and some people pick it up and run with it.

A trainee at the Clink
A trainee at the Clink

"It only works if you strongly support that ethos. If you're taking people for the sake of taking people, then there's no point. You've got to invest some time and guide them and look for things to build their confidence."

Head agrees, adding: "Starting a job is incredibly daunting for anyone, but for someone who's just come out of prison, who is used to having a strict routine, it can be very intimidating. As an employer you have to understand that they might be nervous and may have external challenges they're overcoming while starting a new job.

"If I can do this as a small business, then anyone with a bigger infrastructure can. It does take time, but it really enhances your team. We have people from totally different backgrounds and it's exciting; it's great that any employee who leaves Social Pantry does so with a completely different take on what an ex-offender is. These guys are dedicated and hardworking employees. They're pretty ambitious and some have brilliant transferable skills."

A question of trust

Sally Beck, general manager of the Royal Lancaster hotel in London, also took her team to HMP Brixton and found that the experience made converts of them all. She says: "It broke down a load of barriers. I'd previously spoken about hiring ex-offenders and everyone was panic, panic, panic, but then you realise how great the opportunities are – their skills are amazing.

"The reason it's so good for an employer like us is that I know more about that person than I do anybody else on my team. They also have a mentor that stays with them and everybody supports them. We've had probably three chefs come through and they've all been good."

For Beck, employing ex-offenders is an opportunity to bring talent into the business as well as to give someone a second chance. She says: "It's a staffing stream – I also work with Key4Life – and they haven't let me down. You've got to think broad and wide, particularly in our industry. It's an industry for attitude: you've got to have enthusiasm, energy and positivity and obviously you've got to like people. If you have the right culture, you can bring in enthusiastic people from any walk of life. I think you've just got to think broader and trust them."

The Clink at HMP Styal
The Clink at HMP Styal

For Corrick, offering a chance is his inspiration. The chef recalls getting a summer job at a seaside hotel in Devon when he was 14. Despite his insistence he didn't want to enter the industry, the hotel's chef took this "snotty-nosed kid from a council estate" under his wing, even giving a much-embellished account of his skills to ensure Corrick got a place at catering college.

He says: "From that day to now, that man's always been in my head because he gave me a chance. Everything I've got, I've got because he gave me that in the beginning, so that's how I go through life, trying to give people chances.

"Everybody deserves a chance. They've done something wrong, but that doesn't mean they have to live with it forever."

Case study: Suhail Ahmend

Suhail Ahmend, 27, was in prison for a year before he was introduced to Alex Head of Social Pantry by charity Key4Life.

He told The Caterer: "I was lucky to have the support of my family, Key4Life and Alex. Being offered a job at Social Pantry really helped to get me off the ground and create a steady foundation from which I could grow."

Ahmend had never considered a career in hospitality, although he had experience of customer relations from working at a grocery store. He said he found the industry "interesting, varied and enjoyable".

He continued: "I started out working as a kitchen porter, but over time I have become increasingly supportive of the kitchen team, helping the chefs prepare and cook food for events. I've become a trustworthy and reliable member of the team and I've had the opportunity to mentor ex-offenders who have joined the business, which has been a great experience.

"I'm now also the warehouse manager, which means I'm responsible for stock checks and warehouse maintenance. I've really learned to manage and prioritise my time, and to work in a team as well as independently. I'm always learning by being challenged or helping out in areas of the business that I haven't worked in before."

When asked about his ambitions, Ahmend says: "I'm really enjoying my role and time at Social Pantry, so for the foreseeable future I'd like to remain here and stay in hospitality, continuing to grow and develop my experiences within the team and to take on new and exciting challenges and roles."

Only a Pavement Away


Only a Pavement Away was established in 2018 to be a conduit between employers and ex-offenders as well as the homeless and ex-service personnel. It matches businesses to potential recruits as well as holding employment workshops in prisons and running an online jobs board. Those who successfully secure a job are then given 12 months of support from the charity.

Founder and chief executive Greg Mangham says employers are not asked to take those it matches them with out of sympathy, it is up to the interviewee to win the position, but the employer is asked to be empathetic and appreciate that this may be the first job their new employee has held.

Mangham says: "The employer gets to know where a person comes from and that they've got a support network for a year. We ask employers to help them succeed."

The hospitality veteran established the charity after being struck by the number of homeless people around him and thinking that their skills could be used in the industry.

He explains: "If you're coming out of prison, women are pointed towards care work and men towards bricklaying. I thought, hang on, hospitality will give you a job in the warm, where you'll probably get one meal a day, your uniform is supplied and there's camaraderie. We're one of the biggest industries in the country, we're expanding and we have vacancies."

Kevin Brown, pastry chef, the Royal Automobile Club

Kevin Brown (right)
Kevin Brown (right)

Brown was serving time in Brixton prison when he was accepted on the Clink's programme, going on to achieve his Level 1 and 2 NVQ and securing a job at the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) in London's Pall Mall.

He says: "I had a few interviews and then I came to the RAC and spoke to Mr Corrick. He told me what it was all about. It actually was an interview – it wasn't some pity party. We went through the process, he showed me kitchens and gave me a trial."

Starting the job was a transition, but more than two and a half years later, Brown is working in the pastry team. He explains: "To come to a fully-functioning restaurant, it's daunting. I'm not going to lie, I struggled at first. You're working split shifts and it was knackering. You've come from lying on your bunk all day to doing proper work.

"Working in the Clink, they give you the basis of everything, so it was for me to make up my mind as to what to do. Before I thought pastry was just making cakes, but there's a lot more to it. It's science – a lot more technical. Now I'm getting to grips with it and it's like, yeah, I can do that."

He says the Clink is "like a shoulder, if you need help and advice", and he has gone on to speak for the charity at many events, as well as appearing on television in Bake Off: The Professionals 2018.

Brown, who is now writing a book about his experiences, explains why the Clink works. "The reoffending rate is low because they've given people a chance – any major industry could offer a chance and prisoners will bite your hand off to get on the ladder.

"A little bit of hard work, a little bit of luck and you can do it. You don't have to go back to prison."

From our sponsor


Employing ex-offenders poses both a challenge and an opportunity. On the one hand, ex-offenders can be stigmatised due to the existence of a criminal record, an absence from the job market and underdeveloped skills. However, gainful employment offers ex-offenders a path back into society, where they can develop their abilities and build a better future.

The hospitality sector provides a number of roles that can be beneficial. For example, bartending or serving meals can build up an individual's social abilities and foster a sense of responsibility, while chef jobs help to build focus and act as a career ladder.

Employers using a platform like Syft have the knowledge that their flexible staff are totally legally compliant; businesses that can't guarantee compliance could experience serious penalties. A routine is invaluable for ex-offenders to reintegrate, but many of today's workers desire flexibility so they can meet their other commitments.

Modern staffing platforms cover both bases, giving people control, choice and a pace tailored to their needs. Brands like Pret a Manger are doing important work by bringing in ex-offenders; it's time for the sector to consider how it can promote inclusivity for individuals looking to progress through hard work.*

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