Cardiff's walk-in prison restaurant
- 20 September 2012
- From the section UK
Wales Correspondent Hywel Griffith visits Cardiff's latest restaurant, The Clink, conveniently located near its staff's residence: the city's prison.
The first thing you notice as you enter through the doors of The Clink, is a carefully-typed lunch menu offering "saddle of rabbit" and "crab ravioli with light crab bisque".
Once inside, the gleaming silverware and mood lighting is enough to distract you from the fact that you are about to eat at Her Majesty's Pleasure.
There is clearly a novelty appeal to The Clink, but in fact it is the second prison restaurant to be established in the UK. The original is at HMP High Down in Surrey, where diners have to book well in advance and are taken through security checks before being given plastic knives and forks.
The new restaurant in Cardiff has been set up as more of a public venture, with an open door at the prison perimeter to accept walk-in custom.
According to prison governor Richard Booty, that open door won't offer an easy escape route for the prisoners. "What the public must expect of me is assurance. I can assure them the prisoners that work here are risk assessed."
The governor explains that all the restaurant staff are Category D prisoners which means they "can work and live in open prison conditions" so diners will not come face to face with high-risk convicts.
I was given a tour of the kitchens as the prisoners were put through their paces, preparing their first full service for a room full of invited guests. As he created the aforementioned crab ravioli, one inmate, who is serving a life sentence, told me The Clink was helping to give his life direction.
"It gives me hope for the future employment-wise. I have trained as a chef whilst in prison, I've gone up to NVQ level two at the moment," he explains. His ambition is "to repay society by helping other young individuals and preventing them from coming back into prison like I have done".
Out in the restaurant, a second inmate, imprisoned for drug related offences, was waiting tables. He told me me how The Clink had shown him that there was a way to earn money legitimately and as for slipping into old ways he said "I don't want to, I want to stick with this and see what it has to offer."
There have already been allegations that the restaurant exploits a cheap labour source - the campaign group Right to Work say they are "shocked and outraged" by the wage of the £12 a week offered to inmates for 39 hours work. They claim it is the latest example of "twenty-first century slavery, where rehabilitation is scrapped in favour of hyper-exploitation".
That charge is denied by the Prisons Minister Jeremy Wright who says "this is a charitable enterprise, these people aren't looking to make money. What they are looking to do is to give something back to make sure prisoners can do something useful whilst they are in custody and skills they can take with them when they leave."
There is of course another, slightly different risk: that the prisoners are being put on show for a paying public, with customers encouraged to watch the inmates at work.
Governor Richard Bootie accepts that there is a voyeuristic appeal to the restaurant that the public get to see prisoners at work, but says "we expect a responsibility from the people who participate" and the rules state: "no filming or photography of prisoners, you are here to participate in a training restaurant."
Ultimately, The Clink will need to survive on the standard of its food if it is to succeed in an industry where restaurants regularly fold within six months of starting trading.
Among the guests invited to enjoy The Clink's first full service was Antonio Carluccio, a man who knows a thing or two about the restaurant business, having opened over 60 of them across the UK.
He was impressed with the standard of the food saying it was "very good, in fact exceptionally good. There are many restaurants that couldn't produce that sort of food."
As for the skills of the staff, Antonio Carluccio has already taken on "two or three chefs" from The Clink alumni at his own establishments. "They behave very well, they are serious with their job and I don't think that many of them will reoffend."