Monthly Archives: June 2012

Gordon Behind Bars – the true cost of reducing the cost of imprisonment?

Tonight, 26 June 2012, Channel 4 screened their highly-publicised documentary Gordon Behind Bars where Chef Gordon Ramsey aimed to develop a stand-alone kitchen within HMP Brixton to generate income for the prison itself.  Throughout the programme, Ramsey’s clear ethos is of ‘making prisoners pay’ something towards their £38 000 per year upkeep.  After recruiting and training a team of inmates, Ramsey aimed to make food in the prison, to sell on the outside.  Their first task – I’m sure a purposeful choice designed to directly juxtapose the stereotypical masculinity of the ‘Bad Boy Brigade’ – was to bake and decorate fairycakes.  


Aside from the interesting voice-over, which Ramsey himself litters with phrases such as ‘reprobates’ who are ‘committing GBH on fairycakes’, the programme could have a highly interesting deconstruction carried out upon it; particularly relating to the language used to describe the prisoners and their attitudes.  However, it is the commercial aspect of the programme that becomes my focus for today.  With the prison system being a heavy expenditure for the UK taxpayer, Gordan Ramsey’s idea of putting prisoners to use for economic purpose is a valid one.  However, it clearly raises questions surrounding the employment opportunities available for law-abiding citizens. 


Right back in 1811, the Holford Committee was established to discuss what form the first central prisons should take.  The question of whether government should fund imprisonment was no longer debated – only the style and method of the prison.  They considered two models.  Firstly, Bentham’s Panopticon (designed in the 1780s/90s) saw the prison as a machine to manufacture goodness – based on total supervision.  Bentham was very keen on the idea that prisons should pay for themselves and introduced the idea of prison labour.  This was rejected by the Holford Committee who had difficulty with the idea of prison as a commercial enterprise.  One of the criticisms John Howard recognised in his (1777) State of the Prisons was gaolers making money.  Holford thus saw Panopticon open to abuse.  Furthermore, prison labour undercuts free labour in the market so it was therefore not a suitable ‘fix’ in 19th century times of extreme poverty.  They went for the rival proposal – the Penitentiary Act proposals of 1779[1] which outlines the model for Gloucester Penitentiary – a regime based on ideas of solitude, labour and religion. 


Nevertheless, other prisons have employed similar tactics.  The Clink is a Michelin-standard restaurant located inside the prison at HMP High Down in London.  Visitors enter the prison, are advised on contraband items and are ‘locked in’ the restaurant.  Soon to be rolled out across other prisons, including HMP Cardiff, all the staff at the restaurant share one thing in common – their criminality.  Developed by professional chef Alberto Crisci, The Clink offers training in cookery and hospitality as a way of rehabilitating prisoners. Whilst any profits contribute to directly reimbursing the project, the focus is upon developing the skills and reducing the recidivism of inmates released back into the community.  The Clink does not generally market its product in competition with outside restaurants and its main customers include associates with the prison system.  The restaurant also acts as a canteen for prison staff wishing to purchase items such as those from the high-quality salad bar during their lunch break.  According to their facilitators, The Clink (in combination with a team of post-release mentors) is achieving 100% success rates.


Gordon Behind Bars does raise an important point – the clear lack of full-time jobs for prison inmates (although it does not elaborate on any logistical reasons why this may be the case).  The repercussions of this provide the main grounding for Ramsey’s concern – that unemployed prisoners live an ‘easy’ lifestyle in a kind of prison ‘hotel’ which generates a general malaise and unwillingness to lead a productive life, both in prison and upon release.   However, despite its clearly weighted terminology and narrative, the programme does provide a glimmer of positivity in its presentation of the prison population.  Typical to other programmes where television chefs have ‘transformed’ their novice trainees into skilled workmen, the potential of the prisoners is highlighted.  The ‘Bad Boy Brigade’ successfully created fairycakes for sale to prison staff (for £20 profit) and prepared a five-option evening meal for the rest of the 800-strong inmate populate of HMP Brixton.   It may indeed be the case, that like The Clink, Ramsey’s project can have high success rates.  The practicality and sustainability of the project remains to be seen, and I’m confident the rest of the series will answer these concerns.  However, what will be more interesting to question, is if making a scheme such as this profitable will have any impact upon the sustainability of other services and employment beyond the walls of the prison.     


Howard, J. (1777). The state of the prisons. Abingdon, Professional Books.

[1] Penitentiary Act 1779, Held at London Metropolitan Archives, ref: ACC/3648. 


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Jail Fever: Euro 2012 behind bars

Recently, I have come to follow the personal blog of Prisoner Ben Gunn – the first of its kind from a serving British prisoner.  After a long period of contestation by prison authorities, Ben (having been originally sentenced to 10 years for his guilty plea of the murder of his friend when he was 14 years old) was permitted to publish his comments online.  However, his firm belief in freedom of speech against institutional power has resulted in him being incarcerated for over 30 years. 

Ben, who has been serving his sentence with home leave and release on licence to work, posted his latest entry on 14 June 2012.  He reported that “in a fit of patriotism the nick rearranged meal times to allow a clear period to watch the [European Championship 2012] footie”.  Prison commentators have investigated the way in which inmates attempt to retain the citizenship of less-territorially grounded communities, such as those of football supporters.  An Art Teacher facilitating classes within prison noted that although Steve hardly spoke, when he did, one very obvious thread of thinking permeated everything and this was Liverpool Football Club:

Once, for example, when the subject of his nine-month-old child cropped up, he managed to get in, within about three seconds, that ‘he was the youngest member ever of the Liverpool Supporters Club in Britain” (Rudesind 2006, 45). 

Scholars have been interested in the ways in which the normalcy of the outside world is accessed by prisoners.  Baer (2005) writes about the display of toiletries which can often be found in prisoners’ cells.  Many of these are often empty but become relics of life outside, and are cherished like more personal possessions such as letters and photographs.  In a similar way, media outlets become a major link to the outside world.  A BBC documentary about life in the women’s prison HMP Cornton Vale in Scotland described how inmates Debbie and Gemma found that celebrity gossip magazines helped them to keep up-to-date with the goings on and feel attached to the outside world, even if it was not the one that they would be likely to participate in if they were not incarcerated (BBC 2008). 

On the face of it, decisions by the prison authorities to alter mealtimes to cater for fans of the major football tournament seem like inclusive and sensitive ones owing to the huge numbers of football supporters, timings of the games and the high-profile of the tournament.  However, Ben’s blog reveals a darker side. He describes how this ‘overlooked the fact that 200 men working outside [of prison], returning after an 11 hour day, found the kitchen doors firmly welded shut’.  He commented that he can now ‘add hunger and ineptitude to [his] long list of reasons to dislike our national game’.   Furthermore, in a dramatic twist the editor of Ben’s blog posted the following comment:

Ben has just been grounded for 35 days! He had a go at the kitchen staff for not getting fed (see today’s blog post) and has lost his job, single cell, his town visits and home leave.  A sharp reminder that open prison is still in fact prison.

It is interesting to highlight the significance of events within prison (either the desire to watch a football game, or merely to have meals served at the correct time), which would be taken for granted by those outside of prison.  For me, the vernacular is a rich source of understanding into the lives of the prisoner – one which, if better appreciated, could help to aid a much more efficient working of prison life.


Baer, L D 2005. Visual imprints on the prison landscape: A study on the decorations in prison cells. Tijdschrift Voor Economische En Sociale Geografie 96 209-17.

BBC 2008. Girls Behind Bars  Accessed 1st October 2008 22:45.

Rudesind, A. 2006 Bang Up For Men: The Smell of Prison Starborn Books, London.


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Married to a Murderer: letters as courtship

On the 31st May 2012, Channel 4 broadcast the documentary Married to the Moonies which provided a vantage point on the little known, but controversial world of the Unification Church, known to outsiders as the Moonies.  The film followed three British youngsters as they travelled to Korea to take part in one of the movement’s eye-opening mass weddings, where thousands of couples are blessed simultaneously. 

Prior to the ceremony, courtship is highly condensed, with relationships developed across social networking sites and through virtual means such as Skype.  Couples are usually matched by parents, and owing to the desire to marry within the movement, partners can be found in different countries and sometimes do not speak the same languages.  In many instances, couples may meet for the first time days before their wedding, and begin married life separately in different continents until their respective circumstances allow them to live together.    Twenty one year old Reamonn was matched with a girl from Argentina and engaged for 18 months before the cameras followed him to the airport as he met his future bride for the first time.  In an event quite shocking to the outsider, 20-year-old Naomi from south London was matched with her future husband just days before the ceremony.  Furthermore, as pre-marital sexual activity is prohibited by the movement, and frowned upon for 40 days after the ceremony, couples largely conduct their engagements without so much as holding hands or a kiss.

Whilst Married to the Moonies firstly made me think about the scandal of marrying a partner that you’ve never met before, it occurred to me that this kind of activity has been going on under my nose in my field of interest for years.  Media reports have scandalised the cases of many individuals involved in relationships with prisoners, some of whom are incarcerated in maximum security institutions.  Cases where life sentence or death row prisoners are involved have attracted the most attention, such as that of Tim McDonald who married 34-year-old ‘lifer without parole’ Teresa Harris in Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville.  The couple have never lived together or had any kind of physical relationship other than what McDonald described as “an airport hug”, and indeed comparisons could be drawn with spouses who work away such as in the Forces or those long distance relationships, such as in the case of the Moonie marriages. 

It is not in scandal of the context that I find commonalities between Moonie- and inside/outside prison-marriages, more so the methods through which the meetings of the individuals occur.  The importance of the letter in creating and maintaining relationships with prisoners was highlighted in the 2005 article by Richard Tewksbury.  Although it is true that inmates can become seriously involved with someone they knew before their imprisonment, there are, however, an increasing number of programmes organised by those such an anti-death penalty groups, or religious and local communities that encourage letter-writing to inmates.  Tewksbury exemplifies as one such organisation, which exists alongside others in the UK like Bridging The Gap (BTG).  Although the focus of these schemes is upon providing a listening ear and link to outside life, relationships have developed.   “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez, awaiting execution for a string of brutal murders in California in 1985, married a pen pal in 1996.  In the USA, prisoners can advertise their desire for a pen pal, here exemplified by 56-year-old Adele in Texas:

 I am an orchid in boots and Levis. … Fun lover with morals. Clean mind, mouth and body. I’ll bring you smiles and warmth and a shoulder to lean on and an ear to listen to you. … You get this little bit of pure sunshine for a U.S. postage stamp. That’s cheaper than a dinner date. Satisfaction guaranteed or I’ll return your undamaged heart to you.” (ABC News, 2005)

The letter is one of the most tangible connections for the inmate to the outside environment.  Unlike the betrothed couples of the Unification Church, prisoners do not have access to the communications infrastructure that the former find intrinsic to the development of their relationship, due to security reasons.  It seems that prisoners now conduct their condensed courtships in means which were common to the Moonie unifications of the 1970s when the movement first began.  With the UK government providing one free stamp per week, the frequency of these letters can be costly for the inmate in relation to their meagre earnings and therefore sporadic. 

Clearly, the prison environment serves to provide a vantage point for critically engaging with the methods of communication and interaction taken for granted by members of liberal society.  In an age of social networking and intense media interaction, which can often foster strong relationships as demonstrated by the Moonie marriages, the prisoner remains tied to paper and envelope.  


Tewksbury, R. 2005. Personal Ads from Prisoners: Do Inmates Tell the Truth about Themselves, Federal Probation 69 (2) 32-34.

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