When asked what it’s like to be a woman running Liberty Kitchen – a street-food social enterprise in one of London’s largest male prisons, Pentonville, I’m not sure how to respond.
There’s been no comparison with how I felt taking up a previous CEO role and being told I was the wrong age and wrong sex. Instead, I’ve been encouraged by almost everyone: from prisoners (men) to officers, from Governors to Gate Staff. It is, however, an unusual situation as, for 6 months, I’ve spent most of my days locked up in the staff mess with up to 8 men working under the supervision of the Liberty Kitchen Chef to create street foods: a “Ball No Chain” – meat, fish & veg ball range being sold in local markets: most recently Kerb on Granary Square at Kings Cross on a Wednesday, and also at Fernandez & Wells outlets on a Chance for Change Friday.
Liberty Kitchen is a non-for-profit enterprise working with prisoners and ex-prisoners to create, supply and deliver original, London-inspired street food. It aims to give men a chance for change by providing training, relevant qualifications, jobs, opportunities and skills for life.
Liberty Kitchen was designed for HMP Holloway, for years Europe’s largest female prison, and if anyone had told me that three years later I’d be in Pentonville, I’d never have believed them. I wanted to work with women, and had carried keys at Holloway as an Independent Monitor since 2000. By 2015, thanks to the heroic efforts by the Governor and staff, Holloway had finally made Day Release a reality, which could have seen women going out to sell their food on the markets. Before we had a chance, Holloway closed and the women were relocated out of London. Encouraged by the Liberty Kitchen Board, I sought to relocate to a male prison. I’d already had a vague idea to do a Bake Off with HMP Pentonville and, given its location on Caledonian Road, it is ideally placed for many street-food markets.
Unlike Holloway which was rebuilt in the ‘70s, Pentonville is ‘the’ original classic jail with a central hub from which all the wings radiate. I’m not sure at what point it hit me but I suddenly couldn’t ignore the fact that, of the 80,000 prisoners in the UK, ‘just’ 5,000 are women. And with men behind bars making up a staggering 90% of the prison population, the chance to work in Pentonville with Liberty Kitchen could be a real opportunity to show case innovation in a large male prison; and see if this kind of scheme was applicable to the majority of those locked up.
Six months in I am still surprised when learning what life is like in and out of prison for men. I can’t help comparing their experience with the 15 years spent in Holloway and thinking about what’s similar, what’s different. When I started, women were being ‘banged’ up for the same number of hours that the men may experience now – sometimes with whole weekends behind the door and, if there’s an incident, the cancellation of family visits. The impact of locking women up especially in relation to their families was always one of the biggest issues and ‘keeping the family together’ is often a reason given for why women should not be in prison.
After having had numerous conversations with the Liberty Kitchen men (usually while washing up or rolling the meatballs) I’m concerned that we need to start asking the same questions about locking up men as fathers as we do about locking up women as mothers. Many of the men have the same worries: they tell me about their children, their ‘partners’, their mothers, their grannies; they, too, relate the agony of missing birthdays, hearing from a child during a visit that Mummy’s been with someone else; or from their lawyer or probation officer that they can’t have access if they want to get a tag. They may have to go to a hostel instead of going home. Dump any notion about men being the less emotional sex.
This, understandably, is full on. That said, when it’s really bad, the men say nothing. With hunched shoulders they become distracted, and may just focus on chopping or peeling. Sometimes it helps to be female and we go to the safety of the storeroom where they may feel able to talk. Often they won’t want to tell the others - keeping up a tough, or at least controlled, façade is a way of coping and surviving life on the wings.
On a daily basis it’s misleading to over emphasize the machismo, and what’s exciting about Liberty Kitchen is how the men gain confidence and creativity while designing their own balls (some of which beat the tastes of those which originated with a private chef). One of these is already being sold in the markets. Later this year we hope to launch Electric Avenue a Caribbean inspired range. I am no longer convinced that Holloway would have beaten Pentonville in a Bake Off and, for all the hard conversations, what’s great is the appreciation of the men, some very hard work and their openness to trying something new -
“Liberty Kitchen was an eye opener. It took me on a journey of new tastes, flavours and experiences as well as learning how to be a team member. I’ve been in a team before but this was different because we were creating something that was being produced and going out to a market” DG
Liberty Kitchen used the RSA Catalyst Scaling grant to design the training programme, hire a Head Chef and develop a menu with participants to then take out to markets to sell. Find out more at www.libertykitchen.org
Find out what it’s like to sell at Liberty Kitchen in the next instalment of Janet’s blog.
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 I can’t remember when women were referred to as prisoners, men are always prisoners.