Ramsay’s ‘Bad Boys Brigade’ versus Crisci’s The Clink

Ramsay’s ‘Bad Boys Brigade’ versus Crisci’s The Clink

At 9pm on 26 June 2012, many watched with interest and quite possibly scepticism as Gordon Ramsay entered HMP Brixton to do what he does best: cook. Instead of the team of talented chefs he is usually surrounded with, his hope was to form what he termed a ‘Bad Boys Brigade’; a team of convicts he would train in the hopes of opening a fully functional bakery within the prison. The plan is to sell to the public and, most importantly for Ramsay, earn a profit. However, the documentary is somewhat misleading because Ramsay is by no means a trail blazer, he should not be given special recognition for taking on this arduous task and he should not be attributed with the aim of rehabilitating offenders. For one simple reason: this has been done before.

In May 2009, The Clink restaurant opened in HMP High Down and a documentary very similar to Ramsay’s was aired in early 2011. This project was the brainchild of chef Alberto Crisci who had been the catering manager at High Down for 15 years before he realised his idea of opening a restaurant inside the prison. His inspiration for the project was to tackle the problem of re-offending and rehabilitating prisoners back into society. Make no mistake; it is The Clink that holds the title of being the first commercial food-based enterprise to open inside a British prison. This article will contrast these two projects and set it against the wider background of the rehabilitation of offenders.


The prison population on 22 June 2012 stood at 86,456. The proven re-offending rate for those released from custody was 47.3% for the period of July 2009 to June 2010. Proven re-offending is defined as any offence committed in a one year follow-up period and receiving a court conviction, caution, reprimand or warning in the one year follow-up. These figures are incredibly worrying and it brings the old arguments of rehabilitation versus punishment in to direct conflict.

Section 142 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 sets out the purposes of sentencing that judges should bear in mind when dealing with an offender. Top of the list is the punishment of offenders; second is the reduction of crime; third is the reform and rehabilitation of offenders; and then fourth and fifth are the protection of the public and reparation. On that basis it may appear that particular emphasis is laid on punishment and that this is the main concern of our Government, but with recidivism as high as it is, a change in emphasis is clearly needed.

The obvious question is: if these offenders are released without qualifications, without a job, without a support network and without a place to live, why are we so surprised that they re-offend? And perhaps more importantly, what can be done to remedy these problems and, hopefully, as a consequence reduce re-offending?

It is also undeniable that repeat offenders often have issues that imprisonment alone simply cannot address, for example:

  • Two-thirds of prisoners have numeracy skills at or below the level expected of an 11-year-old. One-half have reading ability and 82 per cent have writing ability at or below this same level.
  • One-quarter of young male offenders in prison are young fathers and one in five women prisoners were living at home with dependent children at the time of imprisonment.
  • One-half of male and one-third of female sentenced prisoners were excluded from school. Half of all male and seven out of ten female prisoners have no qualifications.
  • Nearly three-quarters of prisoners were in receipt of benefits immediately before entering prison. Two-thirds of prisoners were unemployed in the four weeks before imprisonment.
  • Around 70 per cent of prisoners suffer from two or more mental disorders. In the general population the figures are 5 per cent for men and 2 per cent for women.
  • Five per cent of prisoners were sleeping rough prior to imprisonment and almost one-third were not living in permanent accommodation immediately prior to imprisonment.

Figures courtesy of House of Commons Library Standard Note SN/SG/4334, Last Updated: 24 May 2012, Gary Berman

Many of you will be familiar with the education that prisoners can receive whilst in prison; the ability to gain degree qualifications is something much criticised in the tabloid media. Although, perhaps the media are ignorant of the literacy figures mentioned above; many inmates simply are not capable of getting a degree. Such programmes are oversubscribed, difficult to get on to and are often reserved for those serving long-term sentences, making them of little use to those offenders who may be in prison regularly but on shorter-term sentences. The next problem is that although a qualification is a good place to start, experience is also required and this is something that an ex-offender will struggle to gain upon release.

The Clink

Step in Alberto Crisci whose aim was to tackle these issues by setting up The Clink Charity and opening The Clink Restaurant. The aim of the charity is to:

…reduce re-offending rates of ex-offenders by training and placing graduates upon their release into the hospitality industry.  The charity represents a genuine opportunity for change, offering prisoners the chance to gain food preparation, food service and cleaning qualifications as well as experience within an exciting, operational business and in-depth guidance to find full-time employment within the hospitality industry upon release.  The Clink Charity operates the Clink Restaurant in collaboration with HMP High Down, the Prison Service and the Ministry of Justice and is looking to develop The Clink concept in other prisons throughout the UK, as well as in external public locations.

This scheme clearly answers the questions posed above. Not only are offenders provided with qualifications, in this case City and Guilds NVQ training in all aspects of the hospitality industry, but there is an opportunity to gain much needed experience. The result on leaving prison is that inmates are much better prepared to become valued members of society and break the cycle of offending that, without this scheme, many would remain trapped within.

However Crisci does not stop there; he invites prospective employers to the restaurant to see the inmates work and sample the menu, not only with the hope that some inmates may be offered a job upon release, but with the much larger aim of changing their perceptions of offenders as potential employees. Yes, these are men with a past, but they are also working to better themselves. Visitors to The Clink have included David Miliband, Jeremy Paxman, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, prisons minister Crispin Blunt and eminent chefs Mark Hicks (formerly of The Ivy) and Giorgio Locatelli, as well as the restaurant being open to the general public. Such a clientele demonstrates what an intriguing proposition many are finding this scheme to be, but also the support it has managed to commandeer.

Another fantastic aspect of The Clink is that all produce used in the restaurant is grown in an allotment in the grounds of the prison, which is maintained by the prisoners; the chairs and tables are handmade by inmates from Frankland prison and the walls are lined with the prisoners’ artwork and poetry. This is a far-reaching project that demonstrates the abilities of many inmates and will perhaps allow the public to begin to see these people as human again, rather than as monsters kept behind bars because they are dangerous.

Ross, a Clink graduate, attended The Association of Catering Excellence dinner on Friday 18 May at The House of Commons in London and had this to say to those in attendance:

At High Down I got the opportunity to train in The Clink Restaurant. This is where my life-changing career path began – I saw how well-organised and structured the kitchen was run and wanted to be a part of it.

When I was released my mentor got me an interview at a 4 star hotel and some days later I received a call to say that they would take me on as an apprentice starting in September 2011. I have started to rotate through the various sections of the kitchen as part of my training and I love every minute of it.

The figures, though small, demonstrate the success of this initiative: 85 prisoners have been or are currently being trained in The Clink Restaurant to date and 25 have successfully been released into full-time employment. The charity has also reported that re-offending amongst Clink graduates has been reduced to 20 per cent. This may appear to be a drop in the ocean when compared with a prison population that seems to be steadily increasing, but it is an inspiring start, and it will go some way to silencing critics of the rehabilitative aim.

It does not end here though. The Clink Charity intends to roll this initiative out to other prisons and HMP Cardiff is next on the agenda.

The Bad Boys Brigade

Turning now to Ramsay’s challenge, and the word ‘challenge’ is used for a very specific reason as opposed to ‘initiative’ or ‘scheme’. One cannot help but get the sense whilst watching Ramsay Behind Bars that this is simply a ratings winner; Hell’s Kitchen in a more pressurised atmosphere; Ramsay really meeting his match. There does not appear to be much emphasis on rehabilitation and indeed Ramsay seems to perpetuate many of the damaging generalisations made about imprisonment which are widely circulated by the media. Ramsay has expressed his disbelief at ‘how easy prison life is in British prisons’ and was genuinely shocked when told during the first episode that inmates were given five meal choices every day for dinner and had 24-hour access to games consoles and television. The problem with such generalisations is that it often leads to calls from the public for tougher punishment, and such flippant statements often completely miss the many other issues and hardships that inmates go through whilst in prison. They may be able to watch Jeremy Kyle, but prison is by no means an easy option. Comments such as these can often result in more emphasis being given to the punishment element of sentencing rather than the rehabilitative element thereby undermining initiatives such as Crisci’s. Many of the tabloid reviews also seem to emphasise the fact that inmates stole food whilst working with Ramsay – something that will be counter-productive to establishing a better view of inmates.

Filming then had to be cut short because Ramsay’s visits caused too much disruption in HMP Brixton, again demonstrating that this was not a long-term project for Ramsay and that he was not prepared for the many issues that working in a prison would create; these were things that Crisci knew well, due to his experience and which he took into account.

The ‘Bad Boys Brigade’ has had some success though, with their cakes now being sold in 11 Caffé Nero stores, but it appears that these inmates will also be leaving without the skills and qualifications that graduates from The Clink can boast.


Ramsay Behind Bars will certainly serve to reopen the punishment versus rehabilitation debate, which is no bad thing. Although Ramsay’s comments seem to support the view that greater punishment is required, the bakery and The Clink Restaurant demonstrate that rehabilitative programmes that provide inmates with both training and experience are vital and will help tackle recidivism. Throughout Ramsay’s show, one gets the sense that he saw putting the inmates to work as more of a punishment – that they should be breaking a sweat because they are in prison. This is the wrong approach. Inmates should be breaking a sweat because doing so will enable them to gain skills, qualifications and experience that they can take with them after their sentence is over and it is this that will enable them to build a life for themselves and to contribute to society.

Ramsay Behind Bars will certainly serve to reopen the punishment versus rehabilitation debate, which is no bad thing.

For this reason Crisci and The Clink Charity should be given recognition for their groundbreaking work and for dedicating themselves to a long-term strategy with only the rehabilitation of prisoners in mind. It is their initiative that will change people’s perceptions of inmates and help rehabilitate prisoners back in to society, and to a limited extent has already done so. For now, Ramsay Behind Bars is just good television.


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