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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