On an unseasonably cold day in May, Clinks’ Membership Officer Tom Worley and I met Wendy Cramer, Workshops and Training Manager for the social enterprise Fine Cell Work, outside the walls of Wandsworth prison.
Fine Cell Work operate in twenty prisons across the UK, training prisoners in paid, skilled, creative needlework which can be undertaken in workshops and during the long hours spent in their cells. Prisoners create high-quality products such as cushions and patchwork quilts which are then sold to contribute towards Fine Cell Work’s running costs, as well as working on commissions from a range of customers. Participants are paid for their work, giving them a little extra to spend in prison, save for release or send home to family. Facilities vary from prison to prison, but in HMP Wandsworth Fine Cell Work have their own workshop, with sessions running three days a week.
Wandsworth prison has gained some notoriety in recent months, due to news stories about prison officer corruption and a documentary highlighting poor conditions and proliferation of drugs. Staff we met on the way into the workshop area joked wryly about rats and overcrowding.
Inside a Fine Cell Work workshop
Inside the workshop, though, the atmosphere was very different to the picture painted in the media. There were shelves of books on needlework and cross-stitching, baskets holding various piles of materials in every colour, and stacks of recently donated boxes of vintage sewing thread lined up on the large workshop table. Later on, one of the men confirmed that this classroom-like environment was very much appreciated by the prisoners, remarking, “It doesn’t feel like a prison in here, does it?”
Wendy has had a long career in fashion and textiles, teaching at a university and in various other settings before coming to work at Fine Cell Work. Teaching in prison, she said, was her favourite job so far. Her passion for her work and respect for the men she worked with was evident as soon as the session started. She chatted and joked with each participant as they drifted into the room and the class began. Although the workshop was very informal, each person seemed to have a plan for what they would be doing and were soon busy using sewing machines, hand-stitching, designing pieces or doing quality control checks on each other’s work. While some found it easier to concentrate than others, the sense of calm and focus in the room was a far cry from the noise and commotion of a prison wing.
Many of the men talked of needlework as a therapeutic activity, a way to fill their time and to keep their worries at bay. Coming to the Fine Cell Work class was a much more enjoyable activity than the other prison jobs available, and the work could be continued in their cell, where the majority of prisoners remain, from lock-up at 5pm each afternoon until 8am in the morning.
Some, however, took the hobby further. Rob, a vulnerable young man who Wendy had been advised against working with due to previous bad behaviour, carried with him into the workshop an intricate child’s quilt, a letter of the alphabet delicately stitched onto each square. He had been working on this for the past few months and was pleased to tell us it was nearly finished.
One of the older men, Tony, was referred to as an expert by the others - the go-to guy for fixing mistakes and doing the difficult bits. He had been working with Fine Cell Work for 15 years and was keen to continue volunteering with them after his release; his experience with the organisation had been a strongly supportive and transformative one and he wanted to see others helped by the approach. Tony showed us his current project - an impressive ‘stitch a photo’ scene commissioned for display by an Australian artist - and talked us through the array of complicated stitches used to create it.
Overcoming the challenges of running prison workshops
While Fine Cell Work’s arrangement at HMP Wandsworth was more straight-forward than in other prisons (they have their own workshop and prison officers are generally positive about the project), there were still frustrations for Wendy, who felt the project could do a lot more given the chance. One difficulty was a lack of time: due to the security regime and the timetable of the day, Fine Cell Work can only run two sessions per day, three days a week. With each session only lasting two hours, participants can sometimes feel like they’re just getting into a piece of work when it’s time to begin the clean-up for the end of the session. Wendy lamented the wasted time during the day, especially considering how long men spend in their cells overnight.
Another difficulty was the uncertain position of foreign national prisoners. Foreign nationals make up roughly 40% of the population of HMP Wandsworth, and a significant minority of these cannot speak English. With limited access to English lessons in prison, communication can be a struggle and many foreign nationals are isolated and unable to access the services they need. In Wendy’s class, one Czech man translated for another who was unable to speak any English. Foreign national prisoners are also regularly deported to prisons in their home countries; Wendy admitted she sometimes found it difficult to see this happen to men she has worked hard to support and build a relationship with.
Despite these hurdles, Fine Cell Work continue to train 420 prisoners and sell over 3,000 high quality pieces each year. The participants in the session we visited, as well as many more interviewed by Fine Cell Work around the country, valued not just the opportunity to learn new skills, but the feeling of doing something productive and maintaining a calm focus amid the emotional stress of prison life. Receiving commissions to work on, and knowing that the pieces made would be sold to the public, gives Fine Cell Work participants a sense of connection to and involvement in the outside world, often leading to a more positive sense of a future beyond the prison walls. Some have gone on to utilise their needlework skills after release, while others have gained the confidence and social skills necessary to make a change to their lives – you can read testimonials from participants here.
Find out more
Fine Cell Work has written a case study for Clinks’ Valuing volunteering in the Criminal Justice System project looking at how they build working relationships with multiple different prisons of all types, set up activities where volunteers operate relatively independently, and manage a national volunteering programme. Download the case study here