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Fine Dining Behind Bars

The Clink seems to be a winner as a training and rehab program, but are prison restaurants a form of exploitation?

Brixton Prison

Recently, BBC Travel covered the U.K.’s ongoing prison restaurant program with a look at The Clink, an open-to-the-public establishment that employs and trains convicts to work in fine dining. Operated by an organization called The Clink Charity, along with Her Majesty’s Prison Service (which sounds posh, but is just the British way of saying “hoosegow”), the project now runs three restaurants where curious law abiders can have their meal prepared and served by the cream of England’s non-violent criminal crop. The inside of The Clink might look like the interior of any other upscale eatery, and the a-la-carte menu includes entries like “pressed game terrine, ciabatta croute, fruit chutney and baby cress,” and “loin of venison, celeriac parmentier, sprout tops, girolles and juniper sauce.” But its location inside the forbidding, barb-wired walls of Brixton Prison makes booking a table a daunting affair, separating the casual lookie-loos from those truly determined to enjoy an exclusive penitentiary dining experience. The BBC reports:

“You must book 72 hours in advance, be at least 18 years old and prepared to turn over your mobile phone when you arrive. Handbags and purses must be left behind, pockets need to be emptied and you may be subject to a biometric assessment that includes having your fingerprints and photograph taken. But those willing to comply are in for a unique experience.”

Despite The Clink’s popularity and four-and-a-half star rating on Tripadvisor, the real objective of the program is not, in fact, to run a successful business; the primary purpose is training and mentoring those getting ready to reenter society. But the rehabilitation scheme has still drawn its share of restaurant critics. Some are outraged at the taxpayer cost in setting up ventures like The Clink (as of last year it was operating at a loss). Cons who work the kitchen or serve at these restaurants also only make about £15 a week, a fact that shines a very harsh light on the phenomenon of prisoners serving fancy meals to well-to-do diners. Others warn that using the incarcerated as any kind of cheap labor creates a new class of workers that could drive down overall wages and poach jobs from the general populace.

While prison labor is a serious issue, especially in places like the United States, where about one percent of the population is incarcerated and private lock-ups are a depressingly profitable affair, the Clink Charity’s restaurants are hardly (as noted above) raking in profits for some shadowy corporate entity. Hundreds of prisoners compete for the program’s handful of positions, and per the BBC, the training and mentorship provided by The Clink create a meaningful difference in rehabilitation and recidivism rates:

“The statistics don’t lie. Following the success of the first two Clink restaurants—one located at High Down in Surrey, and Clink Cymru at HMP Cardiff in Wales—reoffending rates have plummeted. Currently 49 percent of ex-convicts in the UK reoffend within one year of release; for those who serve sentences under 12 months this increases to 61 percent. But in 2011, the reoffending rate of graduates from The Clink was only 12.5 percent. The number of reoffenders for 2012 is believed to be around 6 percent, another huge drop below the national average.”

The Clink Restaurant at High Down

Those are impressive numbers, and damn near everything on that menu looks amazing, but after the initial novelty, will people really feel comfortable eating and making merry while being served by prisoners? The Clink Charity, which plans to open seven new restaurants in the UK by 2017, is betting that they will.

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