Broken Britain: MoJ closes prison rehabilitation coffee shop
A story has appeared in the NewStatesman which amply demonstrates the type of political injustices going on in Britain today. As the government prepares to spend billions (on Brexit) that just a couple of years ago it said it did not have, the Ministry of Justice has ordered the closure of a café run by prisoners and ex-offenders at HMP Norwich.
Norwich residents heard the news last Thursday, and the café affectionately nicknamed by some as “The Prison” ceased trading the following day.
Café Britannia opened five years ago, staffed mainly by ex-offenders and prisoners serving the end of their sentences in the “resettlement” part of the prison called Britannia House, hence the café’s name.
The New Statesman reports that was much-loved by locals who have raised two petitions with nearly 10,000 signatories combined and a Facebook page to “Save Café Britannia,” which has over a thousand members.
“I’d come for lunches at the weekends, late evenings, I’m a coffee addict so I’d usually come here to grab a coffee after a run or walk on the heath – it’s so convenient, and the view is amazing,” says Gemma Johnston, a 34-year-old business analyst for a data company in Norwich who was born and brought up in the city.
“And I once had the biggest salad I’ve ever had here,” she laughs. “I think there was a whole block of feta on it… The food was hearty, what you’d get in any good quality café.”
As a regular, she is behind one of the petitions to save it from closure.
“It’s a big loss to the community as a place to socialise and meet – it was such a mix of people, all different ages and backgrounds; I’d just as much expect a Jaguar to pull up in the carpark as a beat-up van driving over after work,” she says.
“But it’s also a big loss to the prison, the inmates, the ex-inmates – for the jobs, the security, the network it provides. It’s a lifeline, the opportunity to stand on your own two feet.”
Disappointed customers come and go, and the prison staff linger on the premises.
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“For any normal kind of person, this is a normal kind of job, but for us it’s a big bridge to connect with society,” says a 30-year-old ex-offender who has worked at the café for over three and a half years, and would rather not be named.
“It doesn’t require a lot of skill but for prisoners who struggle to read, struggle to communicate, they get their confidence back.”
For 18 months, he worked at the café as an inmate and was released in 2017 after a three-year sentence. “After that, I had a pay rise, I was promoted, I learned how to run my own business,” he tells me with pride. “It’s not just serving in a caf, for us it’s probably the only option to get back into society – it’s the first contact with society.”
Without the café, he believes “people will struggle to find a job, and people will reoffend” – what he describes as “going over the walls.”
As a Justice Select Committee report warned in April, “we are now in the depths of an enduring crisis in prison safety and decency that has lasted five years and is taking significant additional investment to rectify, further diverting funds from essential rehabilitative initiatives that could stem or reverse the predicted growth”.
Eleven prisoners were employed at Café Britannia when it closed. Nine are now seeking work placements.
“It’s a loss to the prison system, to rehabilitation,” says one inmate who has been inside since 2003, and started working here six months ago.
“I’ve been in a long time and it’s a great way of getting back into society – interacting with the customers. There’s so much scrutiny in the prison environment. Here, you’re not judged, no one’s asking: ‘Is he in for armed robbery?’”
“I’ve done the pot wash, cleaning tables, woodwork shop, cleaning rooms, interacting with customers, it’s been really good for me,” he says. “I was a little bit shy, a bit withdrawn, at first, I didn’t know how to take things, but within a month I’d calmed down.”