HMPasties – the ex-offenders being rehabilitated by baking.
Making pasties and bread is helping former prisoners and ex-offenders to earn an honest crust – and turn their lives around.
At 19, Lee Wakeham was staring down the barrel of his second prison sentence, with a three year stint in Strangeways in front of him.
Growing up in care and suffering abuse as a child had made him ‘a really angry young man’ – anger that simmered over into offending and violent behaviour.
“I went about trying to make the world pay for what had happened to me,” he says.
“That got me in a lot of trouble. I ended up in prison; 18 months when I was 17 and three years when I was 19.
“At that point I thought I need to stop this now or this is going to be the rest of my life and that’s not what I want.
“In my last prison sentence I got one-to-one counselling. For the first time in my life I started talking about the fact I’d been abused. That’s the last time I committed an offence.”
Determined to turn his life around, he spent the day of his release ringing recruitment agencies until he found a job fitting screws into floodlights and knuckled down.
From there he landed a string of sales and recruitment roles which have ultimately brought him full circle – as an employment coach working with ex-offenders for the charity Groundwork.
Lee, 42, is now heading up the organisation’s HMPasties project, a social enterprise aiming to transform former prisoners’ lives – through baking.
Producing quality, handcrafted pastries using ingredients sourced from prison farms, HMPasties will employ ex-offenders fresh out of custody, giving them the skills and support to build a life and career on the outside.
Its first full time member of staff is 23-year-old Nathan Modlinsky, who has recently served time for GBH.
Like Lee, he saw the sentence as a wake-up call and used his time inside wisely.
“I’m not going to lie, it was an experience. I wouldn’t advise people to go to prison, but it was an experience I actually got a lot of from,” he says.
“Every bit of time I had I tried to accomplish what was offered, I took everything I could basically do. I did a lot of courses in there, a bit of counselling and stuff, and did quite a lot of thinking.
“My ambitions before prison were always quite big. I was always in a bit of a dream world. I always wanted to be successful but I never knew what I wanted to do to be successful.
“When I was in prison it got me off a bad path, it just cut that link. I met Lee, who’s put opportunities in front of me, and it’s up to me whether I grab them – and I did.
“That support for me when I got out of prison was the best thing that’s ever happened to me because where was I before when I didn’t have it. I hated the world. I didn’t see anything positive.”
Together he and Lee make traditional Cornish-style pasties, cheese and onion bakes and veggie samosas, selling them at markets including Didsbury and Chorlton Makers Markets and Wigan Artisan Market, as well as at FC United’s home games.
“I’d never made a pasty before and I’ve never actually been a pasty type of person,” says Nathan.
“Now I’ve tried them I can’t stop eating them, and I do enjoy doing it. I like going out to the market and seeing people and how they react to eating them. I like positivity, because I’ve had a lot of negativity, and now it’s like positive reinforcement.
“I was never good at cooking – I was into eating – but now I’m learning how. Since being involved in this project I’ve started to cook at home and obviously I’m picking up new skills from being in the kitchen.
“It keeps you occupied, mentally stimulated as well as physically. I’m competitive and I do a good crimp – and Lee thinks he does a good crimp so we compete.”
Food and drink form the basis for a number of prisoner rehabilitation schemes, including Gordon Ramsay’s Bad Boys’ Bakery and prison restaurant charity The Clink, which operates at jails including HMP Styal and recently announced plans to open a new cafe in Manchester city centre.
It’s an industry with genuine opportunties for ex-offenders, according to Lee.
“One of the reasons why Groundwork decided to go with the food industry is with Brexit happening, businesses are worried about losing 40% of their workforce,” he says.
“That shortfall needs to be picked up from somewhere. There are lots of guys in prison who work in the officers’ mess, they work in the kitchens, they’ve already got food prep NVQs and hygiene certificates and a real passion for working with food – but no experience in the community.
“There are genuine opportunities for them to get work in an industry that has got a genuine skills shortage.”
Nathan hopes to stay on with the project and become a peer mentor himself eventually.
“There are lots of lads like Nathan in jail who, for a different set of circumstances would not be there, and that’s what HMPasties is for,” says Lee.
“It’s not for people who thrive on a life of crime, because we can’t manage that risk and I don’t want to. We want to help people who, just for a bit of a better chance in life, would never have been in prison in the first place.”
Baking also helped Francesca Barker to turn her life around. In 2013 she narrowly avoided jail for a first time offence and was handed a suspended sentence, which included support to address mental health and drugs problems.
As part of her probation, she reluctantly accepted a place on a baking course.
“I did it for three days and I fell madly in love with it,” she says. “I felt worth something for the first time in the whole process. I made one loaf of bread and shared it with my girlfriend when I got home.
“It was the first time I could give her something, because I had no money or no sense of self or anything. Just through that moment I realised I had something.”
Seizing her second chance, Francesca launched her own business, The Barker Baker, selling loaves at markets across Greater Manchester.
Making food to share with people gave her a sense of pride she says she had not felt before.
“It’s the fact that you can take something simple and turn it into something beautiful,” she says.
“It’s creative, it’s individual and it’s designed entirely, with passion, to share. So even if you feel you’ve taken everything from society, you’re giving something back through food and drink.”
Five years on, Francesca is juggling her business with a full time job, working in marketing for a city centre restaurant, and teaching ex-offenders to bake on her days off.
“For me, there are two things I’m particularly passionate about: firstly women, helping them get back on the straight and narrow,” she says.
“During my process I found out my biological mother was in prison, she’s a failure of the system, essentially, but also a failure of herself, and something I can learn from.
“It’s all life choices, I choose to make the right choices and live a better life now so it’s as simple as that. That’s where criminality really frustrates me because I really do think it is a choice regardless of circumstance. There’s always another option.
“Another is drug rehabilitation, I work with a company called Intuitive Recovery, who I went through rehab with and completely changed my life.
“There’s always one girl I refer to who was my shining star. She came on a course and she was the me of my course – she didn’t want to be there, she was quiet as a mouse, she didn’t speak to anyone, she made this beautiful loaf of bread and I said ‘ooh that’s really good’ and she came up behind me later and said ‘did you mean that?’
“I said ‘of course I did, but does it matter if you don’t think so?’ Every session we have a star baker. She was my star baker. She burst into tears. She wanted to come and do some work experience with me.
“We’re three years on and she’s got a full time job. She’s got both her kids back and she is sober, happy – she’s phenomenal.
“I think you do need catalyst moments. For me it was a middle class housewife in a floral apron in Moss Side – bit of a mother figure – saying ‘Fran you’re doing really well, that’s really good’, and I hadn’t ever heard that.
“I know a lot of people criticise the justice system for being a bit soft but we are human and there are reasons we make the choices we’ve made so we need to support these people, regardless of how you feel, to get back into society.”
One initiative doing precisely that is The Clink. The charity operates working restaurants at four prisons, including HMP Styal, near Wilmslow, where it has helped to cut reoffending rates by 41% by equipping inmates with the skills and support to pursue a career in hospitality on their release.
“Working with food is not only very therapeutic but also involves working as part of a team,” says the charity’s chief executive Christopher Moore, who likens the kitchen cameraderie to a ‘family’.
“A lot of prisoners are in prison because of the family. Either the wrong family or no family. Working together in a team within the restaurants gives them that sense of belonging as well as them gaining confidence, motivation and pride.”
That pride is justified – last summer all four of The Clink’s restaurants were the top rated in their region on TripAdvisor. The charity is aiming to replicate their success at its first cafe off prison grounds, off Manchester’s Oxford Road, where the scheme’s graduates will continue their training.
“Beside prisoners, we are also training members of the public by serving up to 60,000 of them with us each year,” says Christopher.
“We’re changing their perception of prisoners and ex-offenders by helping them understand the prison population is a cross section of society and education ultimately supports the reduction of reoffending.”
Prisoners work and train for 40 hours a week and leave with a nationally recognised qualification. The charity works with more than 280 employers, all willing to take on graduates, including hotel chains Hilton and Marriott.
“There is a major skills shortage in the UK and Clink graduates are helping to bridge this gap with highly trained professionals that offer credible support to that skills crisis,” says Christopher.
“Three months before our prisoners in training are released our support workers meet with them to ensure that they have accommodation, bank account and employment for when they are released.
“On the day of release we then meet the Clink graduate at the gate and take them to their accommodation and employment. We are then there for them 24/7 to help them readjust back into society.
“Our graduates write a disclosure statement to explain their crime and how they have moved on. They also leave with a City and Guilds Level 2 qualification and a reference. The employer will know far more about The Clink Graduate who they are employing than the average man or woman off the street.”
Over in the rented Heaton Mersey kitchens they occupy, Lee is making grand plans for HMPasties too. Armed with a £45,000 investment to get it off the ground, and having just secured National Lottery funding, the next step is to find permanent premises of its own to expand the bakery.
“I have pretty big ambitions,” he says.
“I see it as a scalable business. If we build a large enough production unit in Manchester, I see no reason why we can’t work with other charities who take on a HMPasties shop and a van as a franchise on the basis that they must staff it exclusively with ex-offenders.
“I see no reason why this couldn’t become a national business – all supplied from our pasty factory in Manchester.”
The above article by Emily Heward first published on manchestereveningnews.co.uk in Apr, 2018.