The subject of food in prisons is back in the news after that idiot in America refused to eat anything after being locked up for his role in storming Capitol Hill unless it was organic. Staggeringly, he got his way.
For most inmates, the food they are given is a disgrace on many levels. There have been studies showing that prisoners who were served a nutritionally balanced meal had a significantly lower propensity to engage in violent activity yet the thought of The Daily Mail having a field day with the prospect of people serving sentences having decent food has deterred justice officials from acting to protect officers.
Food in prisons could also be the springboard to a new career path on release. About a decade ago I was asked by Business in the Community to lead a “Seeing is Believing”tour of institutions dealing with repeat offending and the day started at Wormwood Scrubs. We were shown the kitchen and I struck up a conversation with an inmate who had been working down there for two years, starting with washing up duties and now progressed to being to being top of the tree, responsible for around 200 meals a day.
I asked him what he planned to do on release and he said he had no idea. My heart sank. I asked him why he wasn’t planning a career in catering, given the skills he had acquired. It had never occurred to him and no-one had encouraged him to think about that. I explained that I was in the restaurant business and we are always looking for people to fill vacancies in our kitchens. A light went on in him then.
Continuing my busybody activities, a few years ago I was walking around a Young Offenders Institute in south east London at the invitation of the then Governor, who asked me this brilliant question: “Iqbal, how can you help me stop seeing the same faces keep coming back in here after release?” As many as two thirds of young offenders are back inside within a year of completing their sentence.
It was during the time I had Roast, so I suggested to Graham that he give us the officers’ mess (their dining room) for an evening so we could do a pop-up there where our chefs and managers train a group of inmates on how to cook and serve dishes from our menu to an invited audience. It was a huge success and many of the participants asked if we had job vacancies. As all the guests were leaving, we heard a huge roar from the mess. The guys were that pumped up by what they had achieved.
There are great projects like Switchback, Liberty Kitchen and The Clink all providing opportunities for prisons to be a training school for a life away from crime. Recently a competition was held by Food Behind Bars in Brixton Prison where inmates submitted recipes to be judged by a panel of chefs. J won with his Bangladeshi chicken curry which is now featured on the menu of local restaurant Nanban. I hope that when he’s released, they give him a job so he can cook it in person, dually delighting others and transforming himself.
Iqbal Wahhab OBE is a London based entrepreneur who founded Tandoori magazine as well as The Cinnamon Club and Roast restaurants. He is Chair of EQUAL, a criminal justice action group and is a past High Sheriff of Greater London.