RAW Talent Behind Bars
Posted on 2 December 2022
There are 25 of us squeezed into a small classroom in the education block of Rochester Prison in Kent. Broad smiles are on all our faces, we’re clapping and whooping. A few tears are being shed. We’re celebrating the finale of COOK’s first ever RAW Talent training programme held inside a prison. For some of the guys in the room, this might just be a life-changing moment.
For me, it brings a strange mix of emotions. Gratitude for my life of privilege and good fortune; pride in the remarkable work of our RAW Talent team; and a sense of despair at the wasted human potential languishing in our prison system.
Getting the go-ahead for the training has taken months of meetings and negotiation. And, to be clear, COOK isn’t being paid in any way. For people who get offered a job at COOK, we’re aiming for seven out of every 10 to still be working 12 months on – paying taxes, supporting families, contributing to society rather than being a burden on it.
For the graduation, each of the men stands up and tells the room their personal story. Most of us understand the natural fear of public speaking. For these guys, what they had the courage to do was nothing short of heroic. It would have been unthinkable for them to manage it when they started the course. But two weeks later they had bonded into a team. Their confidence and self-belief had grown. They could see an opportunity to change their lives and they wanted to grasp it.
Each of them had a story to tell that was heart-breaking. I wasn’t alone in shedding tears. Most of them had endured horrors in their childhoods we could not imagine. All would admit to having made bad decisions and took responsibility for their choices. They didn’t want to end up back in prison. They wanted a chance for a different life.
After their presentations, they were interviewed for roles in our kitchens. Some were not quite ready for a full-time job, and others didn’t want to work in a kitchen, but several have been offered positions. For those who don’t come to COOK, the course has given them skills and confidence that will hopefully help them move on with their lives.Because these are not bad people – which isn’t in any way to condone or overlook whatever they’ve done to end up in prison. They are 100% human with all the flaws and talents to go with it. And, just like the rest of us, they deserve a chance to make something of their lives. But this is not what the system offers them.
Many people leave prison with £76 ( the discharge grant), no prospects of a job and nowhere to live. And so, guess what, six weeks after they are released, many of them will be back again.
Rosie, my sister and co-CEO, has much more experience of this than me as she chairs an employment board at Wandsworth Prison. But I think I can speak for her when I say that our prison system is broken. Despite the best efforts of many hardworking, good people working in our prisons, what we are doing to tens of thousands of men and women is a tragedy.
Our RAW Talent scheme shows there is another way. It’s run with huge energy, kindness and skill by Annie, John and Sarah – a phenomenal team. And it’s only possible with your support. So, on behalf of everyone here, a heartfelt thank you.
I love this Margaret Mead quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” COOK can't solve the problems in our prison system. But we’ll continue working to show what is possible.