UK prisoners swap crime for coffee

Aylesbury – Every morning, the whirr of an industrial-scale coffee roaster and the sharp hiss of a milk frother can be heard as customers queue to get their caffeine fix at a most unusual spot: inside one of Britain’s toughest young offenders prisons.

Staffed by prisoners aged 18 to 21, the Redemption Roasters cafe inside Aylesbury prison, about 50 miles (80 km) northwest of London, trains inmates with speciality coffee skills in a bid to help them to find jobs upon release.

The small-scale coffee company is part of a growing number of businesses globally that aim to have a positive social impact while turning a profit.

For 20-year-old Vince, whose real name could not be identified, being productive and learning new skills instead of sitting idly in a cell means his years in jail have not been squandered.

"It’s quite useful for my mentality knowing that two years hasn’t just been wasted and that I can actually improve myself whilst being in here," said Vince, who is due for release next January.

"Everyone (working in the cafe) has the same goals. They do want to go out and live a crime-free life. Being around people like that is much better for your mental health," he added.

With about 4 000 men aged 18-20 in prison in the U.K. last year, according to official statistics, helping them find meaningful and stable work when they leave custody is a key priority, the justice ministry says.

About one in three adult prisoners commit a crime within a year of their release, government data shows, costing the country roughly 15 billion pounds ($19 billion) annually.


Laura Sapwell, governor of Aylesbury prison, said the institution has more than 400 young men. Almost 70 are serving life sentences.

"A large proportion of our men arrive at Aylesbury without having had a job in the past," Sapwell told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Our aim here is to give those men who are going to be released from Aylesbury the best possible opportunity to get work and accommodation and all the other things that we know reduce their risk of re-offending in the future," she said.

Yet across Britain’s prison system the record is poor. Sixty percent of prisons fail to get inmates into education or training placements, even when there were spaces available, according to a 2018 report by the prison watchdog.

The Inspectorate of Prisons, which scrutinises the condition of prisons across England and Wales, reported that many inmates felt frustrated for not being able to leave their cells to do purposeful activities in the day, which led to violence.


It is a problem that Redemption Roasters, one of the most popular work placements at Aylesbury, aims to tackle.

"If they don’t have a workshop placement in a prison, they just sit around, they’re just locked up," said co-founder Max Dubiel, whose team also runs shorter courses at other prisons.

"And that’s not a great place to be psychologically, but also not great to prepare you for life on the outside," he said.

Redemption Roasters – which invests profits from its London cafes and beans back into the prison scheme – trains 10 Aylesbury inmates at a time with barista, coffee roasting, customer service and food hygiene skills for up to a year.

Its coffee roaster, the first of its kind inside a British prison, is used to produce a special ‘Aylesbury’ blend of beans that is sold across the country.

"The more coffee we sell, the more trainees we train about coffee, the more training academies we can open and the more skills we can bring across," said Dubiel.


Redemption Roasters wants more businesses to consider hiring ex-offenders, and has since employed three former inmates, including 23-year-old Mohammed, who left prison last October and now works full-time in one of its London cafes.

Mohammed, who declined to reveal his real name, said unrealistic expectations of what life would be on the outside, or the enticements of a life of crime, such as money, could lead people back to jail.

"You’re in such a negative place and then you’re looking forward to coming out (of prison) and if you can’t get into employment and you’re not earning money, it could be a lot for you to handle," he said.

Mohammed said he was grateful to be given a second chance but said there were many others like him who wanted to move on from their past and start afresh.

"If you can give someone an opportunity to get into employment … then you definitely should because you’ll be changing their life," he said.

"I’m not saying that everyone’s a good person but there’s definitely people out there that want to get their life back on track and be normal civilians," he added.

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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