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Doing time: the conference suite behind bars

Kalyeena Makortoff, special to
Image Source | Getty Images

If you've ever hoped for extra enforcement in phone-free meetings, holding it in a south-London prison could be your best bet.

The UK's Clink Charity will open their third prison-based restaurant in London's HMP Brixton in February 2014. Following examples in Cardiff and Surrey, The Clink Restaurant in Brixton will host a 100-seat fine dining restaurant, cooked for, cleaned and waited on by term-end prisoners.

Close to London's City, the Brixton Clink Restaurant will also feature two 24-seat meeting rooms, and three others for working lunches, fitted with AV facilities, plasma screens and a no-phone guarantee. Even the most Blackberry-addicted employee won't argue with a prison guard.

The restaurant is in the grounds of HMP Brixton and prospective patrons are required to apply online and obtain security clearance before they can eat there. Once you arrive, your passport and fingerprints are checked and then reception will confiscate your phones, cameras and cigarettes.

In small groups of 12, customers are then walked across the prison yard and into the Clink rooms.

"You would not know you're in prison once you're in the restaurants," said Moore. "It's a training environment, but the level service and quality of food is good as anywhere in London's west-end."

Bringing business to the table

The pan-fried guinea fowl breast, rosemary seared scallops with pancetta, and chicken liver & boar terrine are just a few choice items off the sample menu, and a full meal will cost you £15 ($24).

The only other reminder that you're in prison is that there's no sharp cutlery and don't expect a wine list — there's a ban on alcohol.

Clink Charity Chief Executive Chris Moore said there's an extra incentive to draw business leaders to the prison table, with hopes that employers spot a potential hire.

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Since opening the Surrey branch in 2009 and the Cardiff site in 2011, successful graduates of The Clink's program have gone on to work at London's Michelin star Locanda Locatelli restaurant, Carluccio's, The Hardwick Restaurant in Wales, and in five-star Red Carnation Hotels and the Thistle Hotel in London.

The charity's aims to cut reoffending rates by carefully selecting, training and eventually employing prisoners nearing the last six to 18 months of their sentences, and it seems to be working. Where 47 percent of UK prisoners return within their first year of release, Moore said reoffending rates are down to 10 percent amongst Clink graduates.

And while prisoners with at least 18 months jail time could have committed crimes ranging from assault, white collar fraud or burglary, the Clink looks to put a prisoner's crime in the past.

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"If we have them for a year, they'll become real good cook," said Moore. "We are training 47 weeks a year, five days a week."

Approximately 28 prisoners at each branch — 10 waiters, 14 chefs and four cleaners — work alongside top chefs like Clink founder Alberto Crisci, and Cardiff branch ambassador Stephen Terry, and are given the opportunity to gain employable kitchen skills and National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs).

At present some 9,700 prisoners are employed in industrial workshops across the prison system engaged in a wide range of activity from printing to commercial laundry, explained the UK's Prison Reform Trust Director Juliet Lyon. Still, she said, there are currently too few opportunities for serving prisoners to develop the skills they need to equip them for the workplace on release.

"Some prisoners have possibly never worked a proper day in their life. Their concepts of money was always cash in hand. Work in jails is usually very menial, very repetitive...and that means they're not necessarily going to value work," said Howard League Prison Reform's Director of Campaigns, Andrew Nielson.

"Projects like The Clink are a real step towards that."

Rehabilitation as a commercial opportunity

Moore ensures that his staff of prisoners have all gone through security vetting and can meet with the public.

"I've seen seen people talking to the staff in High Down in Surrey, and the prisoners are upfront about who they are. They don't go into detail about their history, but about what it's like in the prison. There's no kind of pretence as to what it is, which is a restaurant in a jail," said Nielson.

Commercial ventures out of prisons and rehab centres are popping up across the world, providing much needed skills to inmates and quality services to people on the outside.

The Chang Mai Women's Correctional Institution in Thailand offers a six-month, 180 hour massage course to inmates as part of its rehabilitation program, and invites outsides into their on-site spa. The site has become a popular hit with tourists.

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Meanwhile, a women's prison workshops in Rome are getting the chance to train in fashion. Supported by Fendi heiress Silvia Venturini Fendi, the commercial fashion brand Sigillo is training inmates to create designer handbags, while receiving a part-time salary at €600 per month.

Italy also hosts a widely acclaimed drug rehabilitation program and cooperative community that touts itself an "alternative to prison," offers training in any of 57 trades to voluntary residents. Three SanPatrignano sites across the country, housing anywhere from 150 to 1300 recovering addicts, offer high quality services and goods including cheese from their own cows, wine from site vineyards, furniture and newspaper design and web solutions.

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SanPatrignano has even impressed Moore, who visited one of the rehab communities earlier this year. He hopes similar programs will continue popping up across the UK.

"I'd like to think we're educating the public," said Moore, "we've all got an idea what a prisoner is like...and we're challenging people. We're all two steps away from prison, you don't know how life is going to go."

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