Last Thursday night I went to a Dinner with a Difference. The food wasn’t different. I had an excellent 3 course meal of soup, lamb shank and a cheesecake dessert to die for. It was delightfully served by waiters who were attentive and supportive and well trained. The only thing that might strike you from the description of the meal is that the only accompaniment was Chateau d’Eau (or water as it is otherwise known).
That’s hardly surprising when I tell you that the meal took place in the staff canteen at Liverpool Prison and that the meal had been cooked and served by 8 prisoners who were reaching the end of their catering course and would in the near future be re-joining the community having served their sentences.
But I was by no means the most important diner at the event which was the first of its type at the Prison. By far the most important guests were representatives of the catering industry who had been assembled by Adam Franklin the ever- energetic proprietor of the Yacht Club at Liverpool Marina. Because this was a meal with two purposes. Firstly and most obviously it was a chance to test on ‘real consumers’ whether the skills that had been learned in the staff canteen were fit for purpose. Secondly and perhaps more importantly it was to see if those skills would be acceptable in the market place and whether people in the food industries would be prepared to take people into employment when they left the prison system.
On both counts the meal was a success. The meal was good and well served. I am no ‘bon viveur’ so I left most of the review of the meal to Adam and friends. He did look a bit bashful when told by one of his so-called friends that the Bakewell tart which was one of the choices for dessert was actually better than the one he did. But he was not too bothered – I think he tried to find out the recipe before he went!
On the employment count it is early days but those representatives there were interested in seeing how they could work together with those providing the training to provide further training and support activities outside the prison system. Early days but given the quality and attitude of the meal and service they thought that it must be a strong possibility.
As I went home I thought – as I have done before – about the 3 Ps, Protection, Punishment and Preparation.
Of course society needs to be protected from law breakers. We cannot have a civilised society in which law breakers can run amok. Of course law breakers must be punished. Crimes must be paid for – if you can’t do the time don’t do the crime’ But is it’s the preparation to which I think we should give more attention. Preparation for life in which the prisoner is given the life skills to enable him or her to stay out of the prison system and contribute to society instead of taking from it.
This is just one of the projects that Liverpool Prison is involved in to do just that. An alarming number of new arrivals have low levels of literacy and numeracy which, of course, leads to low self-esteem. If you cannot read or add up there are few jobs available to you in out complex society. Starting with the basics plans are devised for each prisoner which are designed to help them use their talents and experience in a positive way to create a new life for themselves.
I was very impressed by the staff of the Prison Service I met on Thursday. Of course they have to be hard people in much of what they do. Life in prison is hard and they often have to make hard judgements about the people they deal with. All the people I met, however, showed me that beneath that hard exterior there was a massive desire to turn the men they deal with round and try and ensure that this visit to prison would be their last.
I know that the business people and I were all impressed by what we saw and started thinking of ways in which we could help the prison service achieve what was described to me earlier in the day at another event by a CofE Rector as redemption!
Another good thing about eating in prison is that it gets you home early as well as sober. We were told that at 10 p.m. the gates shut and don’t open again until the morning. We were out in good time!! If I get invited again I would do my best to attend and bring people with me who I thought could help take things further and work with the dedicated staff to bring back into society those who, for whatever reasons, have hitherto operated outside the norms that we think acceptable.