Community 'investing in the future of its prisoners'
A Devon community has embraced a project to help prisoners to gain new skills in the hope of giving them a crime-free future. Andy Greenwood reports.
In a small corner of the sprawling Dartington estate in South Devon, a big idea has taken root.
The estate's Quarry Field was once waist-high in weeds and while some of the wilderness remains, a clearing now contains some wooden-clad portable cabins and a toilet block.
Amid newly crafted wooden benches, and an impressive sculpture, stands a display board with the prisoners' plans for a garden to reflect the journey they are on.
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For now, and for the last couple of months, that journey has been a regular commute from HMP Channings Wood, where three of the men are currently serving time. The fourth is on probation.
They are the first "trainees" on the Dartington Hall Trust's LandWorks programme which is working with the prison and Devon and Cornwall Probation Service.
The scheme is giving them training in landscaping and construction, which it is hoped will give them better chances of securing a job when released.
It was officially launched last week at an event attended by some 100 supporters and staff as well as former prisoner Erwin James and MP Sarah Wollaston.
One of the prisoners said the attendance reflected the "tremendous support" they had received as the fledgling project got off the ground.
"We've been here for about two months now – it has been hard work, but we have really enjoyed it," he said. "Hopefully there will be more of us out here in the future and it will be an ongoing thing.
"We have had a tremendous amount of support from people that want to help us out in building the garden and I think when it is done it will be something that will be here for a long, long time for people to come and enjoy.
"This project is all about us coming back from prison into the community. When you are in prison it is easy – prison is not a nice place, but that's the easy part really.
"The hard part is coming back into society. I'll be closer to 50 than 40 when I come out of prison and I'll walk out with £40 and that's it.
"Yes, we have all done things that are wrong and we are in prison being punished for them.
"As a slightly older prisoner, I see a lot of youngsters running around there – even in the couple of years I've been at Channings Wood I've seen people coming in and out, being recalled for stupid things. It is like a vicious circle and nothing ever seems to change with these kids who are in and out of prison all the time. That surely can't be right.
"When you think it costs nearly £40,000 a year to keep someone in prison, surely that money can be better spent on things like this where we can learn skills that will give us something in the future.
"For me, I have picked up things that I never knew I could do. I've got another 12-15 months here and I expect to learn a lot of things."
He said he was "passionate" about the programme, particularly given its potential to help youngsters.
"There are lots of kids who are in and out of prison that need to break the cycle," he added. "They need the chance to be resettled properly and this project is a fantastic opportunity for them and it will make a difference.
"Every one we keep from going back into jail is a success story, for them, for Dartington and the community as a whole. It is one less criminal, it is money saved, it is a life saved.
"Going forward, with the support we have I think this is something we can be proud of in years to come and show the rest of the country what Dartington is all about."
From small acorns, oak trees grow – and LandWorks eventually hopes to offer places to more than 20 ex-offenders each year.
The current programme is costing £55,000, which has been raised through grants and personal donations, which make up half the total.
Within five years, it's hoped the scheme will be a self-financing social enterprise, with trainees carrying out contract work.
LandWorks manager Chris Parson said: "Our main ambition is to equip LandWorks trainees with the skills that will help them gain employment in the future.
"There are the practical elements to this, but it is important also to develop new horizons for them, to build their self-worth and social confidence.
"We have designed LandWorks to provide relevant training and a real work experience programme. Within this we want to see trainees work hard and take responsibility, but also to feel a sense of belonging, be creative and develop new approaches to doing things. For most of them involved, this sort of opportunity will never have happened before."
Erwin James, who served 20 years of a life sentence for murder and is now an author and Guardian columnist, first got involved with the project 18 months ago. He said visiting the trainees and seeing plans for their "garden of hope" had been "really quite emotional".
"Without an accepting community, me and the guys here wouldn't have a chance," he said. "It's pot luck at the moment whether any of us who come out of the prison system actually live again and have anything to offer.
"When you are in jail you are so protected from a whole range of things and there are a whole load of issues you have to adapt to.
"You are protected from the stresses and strains of outside life. Coming out here, I think, is challenging for these guys."
He added: "I don't see why prisons should be places where bad things happen. As a community we don't care what happens in a prison.
"Don't forget 99.9 % of people in prison are going to be out some day and they will be somebody's neighbour.
"When you are in jail you know that the community really doesn't like you very much. You read about it and hear politicians talk about it and they don't have nice things to say, and rightly so – you have hurt the community, you have caused harm and distress and most people in prison do have to be there for a while.
"But it is not about sympathy and compassion for prisoners, it is about practicalities. How do we get these people in our prisons to come out and function well in the community?
"From what I have seen here in Dartington, you have a community that wants to invest time and money in owning a stake in their local prison. Rehabilitated prisoners means fewer future victims of people coming out of prison.
"It's a noble aspiration I think. It's courageous and bold."
Government figures show that almost half of adult prisoners are reconvicted within one year of release. In 2011-12, just over a quarter of inmates entered employment on release from prison.
Celia Atherton, director of social justice at Dartington, said it made "sense" for communities to respond if the prison system wasn't working.
"Britain locks up a higher percentage of its population than any other developed country other than the United States," she said. "We also have the highest reoffending rates in Europe. Those two things are connected."
She added: "At Dartington we are totally committed to trying to build and support resilient communities – communities that are strong and inclusive and attend to the problems they have so they can all be better off."