As I walked up the long drive, lined with barbed wire and 30ft–high (9m) brick walls, I started to get butterflies in my stomach. What if someone kicks off? What if we aren’t as safe as they make out? What will the prisoners be like? So many questions ran through my mind.
The Clink restaurant in Brixton prison is certainly a surreal experience. Not only do you have to apply for a table, you have to be fully checked by security to ensure you are not a relation of the prisoners – or worse, an enemy. Additionally, your waiters and chefs are Brixton prisoners within Category C, a closed prison.After the restaurant manager went through the long list of rules, and an even longer list of valuables you can’t take behind the walls (basically my whole bag), I decided to leave it in one of the lockers provided. I suddenly felt a sense of being trapped and my nerves started up again as we walked through.
“Good afternoon ma’am, welcome to The Clink!” said a prisoner, dressed in a royal blue waiters’ suit. “Can I take your coat?” Our entrance was so bizarre, I couldn’t get my head around it. If that’s not enough to take in, the restaurant itself is a lavish, upholstered dining room which seats up to 120 guests.
The Clink has come a long way since it opened in February 2014. Alberto Crisci, the founder of this project, is the Jamie Oliver of prison catering. The prison works with inmates to reduce re-offending rates, and allows prisoners to learn and engage with the public in their first steps to leading a new life. The officers select and interview only the best-behaved prisoners who can be trusted within a civil environment for the opportunity to work in the restaurant .For a moment you forget you’re in a prison, being served by prisoners. Every single waiter was well groomed, polite and made you feel welcome. I was intrigued to know their stories about their past and working in The Clink. Most of the waiters I asked shied away from giving any details, but one of the more confident waiters was open to discuss his time working at The Clink. He’d worked there for five months and was hoping to be released within eight months. He wants to become a personal trainer when he gets out, and is training alongside working five days week in the restaurant.
Our main waiter had only been serving for two weeks and you could tell. Every time he came over he was nervous and it put me on edge slightly. But the plastic knives and forks beside me were reassuring.
It’s an à la carte menu and, despite being in a prison, the food looked classy and tasteful. I opted for the pan-seared breast of chicken, with mashed potato and veg on the side. To my surprise the food presentation mirrored a high-end London restaurant and the service was faultless. It is evident that every inch of the prisoners’ energy goes in to this experience for the guests.
For dessert I had a warm chocolate and walnut brownie with mocha ice cream. Again, a clean and immaculate presentation and the brownie was spot on. The only downfall of our meal was our starter, which consisted of six or seven slices of bread and the hardest butter you will find.
The restaurant not only boasts the prisoners’ cooking and service skills, but the whole room displays crafts made by inmates. The walls are covered with exquisite portraits of Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X, and the top quality leather chairs and wooden tables are handmade by prisoners.
Working at The Clink does come with benefits. Inmates receive £10 a week to spend on treats and toiletries, whilst inmates who occupy other jobs in the prison receive only £3 a week. Also, the chef can cook for the waiters and not compromise on the standard of their meal. Stir-fry chicken and chips is among the fancier dinners, whilst on a normal day a soggy pizza has to do.Towards the end, I spoke to the other inmates who greet the guests. It seems that the workers really are trying to achieve something and are serious about leading a new life once they are free. The restaurant gives prisoners a new lease of life and a chance to impress the outside world with their politeness and courtesy. So upon being asked about their offence, it’s typical for them to shy away from their past because they don’t want you to see them differently.
The Clink only serves breakfast and lunch and I wondered why they didn’t offer dinner, but dinner time is lock-up time. Inmates who work are in their cells from 6pm until 8am and during their free time they amuse themselves with the gym facilities, reading and playing chess.
After writing a cheque – the only form of payment accepted – amounting to £46 for two, I signed their welcome book and wished all the prisoners good luck. Upon leaving, the prison had me sympathise with the inmates; I could leave to a world full of freedom, while inside those walls was their life for months to years on end.
To apply for a table visit The Clink website.
Her Majesty’s Prison Brixton
Images: Brixton Prison