Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Food for thought: Go to a prison café

When I told my kids we were going to a café in a prison for lunch, they had very different reactions:

“Cool! So we’ll be served by, like, murderers and stuff?” said my 15-year-old son.
“Oh no. That’s scarey,” said my 8-year-old daughter. “They might poison our food or something."

The reality disappointed the Big One and reassured the Little One. The 15 or so prisoners who work at Café Britannia inside HMP Norwich, I explained, were Category D prisoners (or D Cat in prison lingo). According to Wikipedia, these are non-violent prisoners who are considered low risk to the public. They could be serious offenders, but only if they are coming to the end of their sentence and can be trusted not to try and escape.

Not that HMP Norwich is a fluffy little mickey mouse kind of prison. Far from it. It has 10 wings with over 700 male prisoners of categories B, C and D. And as my son – who got googling pictures of the inside of it immediately  declared, "It's got really harsh-looking cells, in tiers, with nets to stop suicide and everything.” Reggie Kray of the Kray twins and Ronnie Biggs the Great Train Robber were both imprisoned here.
The café is ‘round the back’ of the prison in the D Cat wing, but we couldn’t resist having a snoop around the main entrance. It was austere. 
We snapped this quick photo from the car and left. It wasn't somewhere you felt you wanted to hang around. Although I did wonder if this sign was intended to show a sense of humour?
The café, by contrast, is in a much softer and handsome part of the prison – in a Victorian workhousey kind of way.
There are even tables outside ...
 ... with great views over Mousehold Heath and the city. Prisoners could easily do a runner if they wanted to.
Inside is even fluffier, with rustic tables and bunting and a menu that includes veggie breakfasts, afternoon teas and goat’s cheese salads.
This cheeky sign was the only allusion to our location.
As the café’s website explains, 49% of prisoners released in the UK re-offend within the first year. The café gives them the chance to gain skills to increase their chances of employment (there's always a job in catering!) and decrease their chances of re-offending.

We all couldn’t help but immediately check them out. Surreptitiously. And they were easy to spot in their navy blue T-shirt uniform. “They’ve got ID cards round their neck underneath if you look carefully,” my son noticed.
He had them all labelled within seconds. “I reckon that one, for example, is in for drug dealing,” he whispered. “Look at the tattoo on his arm. It says ‘brother’ like he was in a gang or something.” What was the etiquette here? Was it okay to ask your waiter What’s the soup of the day? and What are you in for? in the same breath?

The food was great, the atmosphere relaxed and the waiters affable. Even my daughter tucked into her chicken and vegetable soup unhesitatingly. Profits go to projects offering skills and employment opportunities for offenders. Tips go to Victim Support. My son joked that a range of merchandise for kids would be a good spin-off: handcuffs, prison uniforms, that kind of thing.

As we drove away, we saw a dejected-looking couple in their 50s approaching the prison. “Looks like they’re on their way to visit their son or something,” said my son. “Urggh. Wouldn’t that be awful ... especially now, at Christmas time?" I said. “Yeah,” he said, in a far from jokey voice.

We both pondered that scenario for a little while.

Visit the cafe's website here. There are also prison restaurants at HMP Cardiff (where children are welcome), HMP Brixton and HMP High Down, Surrey (over 18s only). 

If you liked this, you might like Watch a court case at The Old Bailey.


  1. Thank you for sharing your fascinating trip with your kids! My son would have been quite taken with this idea when he was young. Actually he would still find it interesting to experience. It's nice to know there are prisons assisting their inmates in learning trades so they are less likely to re-offend.

  2. Yes, Liz, it's interesting for adults and children alike, I think. And apparently the re-offending rate of the 60 prisoners who have worked at the cafe has dropped to 2% (although as it has only been open a year, I didn't quite understand these figures!).

  3. How interesting! That cafe is both educational and entertaining. It's great that it offers a second chance to those who were once convicted, which is so charitable. At any rate, I'm glad the trip was quirky and successful. You are truly an amazing parent, Claire. Hope to see more adventures like that soon. All the best to you! :)

    Eliseo Weinstein @ JR’S Bail Bond

    1. Thank you for the lovely comment Eliseo...keeping my eye out for more adventures all the time!