It is not the usual thing to be able to willingly walk through the doors of a prison for any given reason. But what is more unusual is to see a working mixed farm.
For a group of farmers and industry experts in Lancashire, that is exactly what happened.
HMP Kirkham, in Preston, Lancashire, partnered with The Oswin Project, a charity which provides second chances to prison leavers, to facilitate the open day.
The charity focuses on the rehabilitative potential of employment and training to change lives and break the cycle of reoffending.
It gives prison leavers access to training, volunteering and employment opportunities and a tailored programme of mentoring and support through their own enterprises.
The aim of the open day was to dispel myths of what open prisons (category D) are like and to change the perception of prisoners starting employment within farming upon their release.
Governor of HMP Kirkham Allison Black said: “We do all we can to make them better than they were. They need a second chance and we need people to take a chance on them and employ them when they are released.
“The men in Kirkham come from other prisons and are near the end of their prison sentences. They are not afraid of hard work and graft.”
Rob Hawes is head of reducing reoffending at HMP Kirkham and can be responsible for up to 699 prisoners when the prison is full.
He said: “Engagement is key. There are 10 pathways to employment. The prisoners have a two-week induction to help support them and they can take part in vocational workshops in certified qualifications funded by the Ministry of Justice, such as land-based activities, as well as learning softer skills, so they are more employable when their sentence is finished.
“If they are vulnerable, they are straight back to their dealer or the next crime. We are building them up to be a work-ready person for your company.”
The farm at HMP Kirkham has 40 hectares of farmland and 28ha of grassland, 25,000 trees and an orchard with fruit-bearing trees.
Eight prisoners work with the livestock under the livestock manager Keith.
The prisoners are responsible for looking after 50 Longhorn cattle, 33 rare breed Large Black pigs and 160 Hebridean black sheep, which lamb in April.
The prison has been part of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust since the 1970s.
It is also doing its part to help the environment, reduce wastage and help promote the ‘support local farmers’ message.
The farm sells its own produce, including vegetables, in the farm shop, which is pretty much on-site, with everything sold being grown from seed.
Kirkham prison grows about 500,000 million plants, meaning it supplies all prisons in the north west of England with bedding plants.
The prison also recycles all the waste and sells commodities such as plastic where it can.
It is a very sustainable method where everything made by the prisoners is used for food, cooked by the prisoners and any waste is recycled.
Conservation is another key part of the prison’s farm and it has vast wildlife corridors, with toads and snakes roaming.
One prisoner due to be released in a month, who must remain anonymous, said: “I love the tractor driving, cleaning and feeding the animals and helping out generally on-farm.
“It is a relief as I love working with animals and it has helped with my rehabilitation and given me something to focus on.
“I have been in for two-and-a-half years and have now got a forklift truck licence and have been on a utility course.
“I know how hard it is to get a job when you get out of prison. I have been in before, but this time I am going out on a clean slate.
“I do not want that life I used to lead, I want to show everyone I can and have changed.
“I have been through so much. I am not getting any younger, so it is time to be determined and focused and get a job as soon as I leave.”
John, an ex-prisoner and now a volunteer for The Oswin Project, works directly with prisoners on-site and helps source work from clients. He acts as the bridge between landowners and an effective team of prison leavers.
If ex-offenders struggle to gain employment directly from release, the charity will step in and the ex-prisoners have the opportunity to attend employment fairs to build connections and contacts to help them stay on the right path post-rehabilitation.
John said: “The charity helped me as they were genuinely interested in my future and wanted to give me a second chance. They had the capacity to listen and not judge me and that is why I wanted to volunteer for them when I was in a position to do so.”
During a tour of the farm, various industry experts were commenting on how they did not expect to see a working, efficient farm in a prison.
Lance Harris, national sector lead for manufacturing, agriculture and horticulture at Ministry of Justice UK, said: “Employing prison leavers who have acquired skills while in prison is great for British industry, especially in the agricultural industry.”
A farm vet business local to the prison also attended the open day to understand how it could help to bridge the gap between prisons and farmers who may be looking for workers.
Donna Sweetmore, of Ribble Vets, said: “It is such a positive and educational initiative that we need to communicate with farmers to get the information out there.
“Having watched some of the prisoners working, you can see how hard they work and that is something farmers want. The prison staff inform the farmer all about the prisoner they would be employing on release.
“You know more about these ex-offenders than most members of staff.”
The CLA is also keen to back this programme, especially in a time where we are in great need of labour and various skills.
Henk Geertsema, CLA’s PR and communications manager, said the CLA was ‘supportive of any initiative which addresses the acute shortage of labour in the rural sector, including the employment of ex-offenders and forces veterans’.
The Oswin Project runs prison open days around the country to help change perceptions and ensure a purposeful and crime-free future for prison leavers and a much-needed work force for the agricultural sector.
Fiona Sample, chief executive of The Oswin Project, said: “I hope the day will inspire those who joined us to work with Kirkham and other establishments to employ prisoners released on temporary licence and prison leavers.
“Prison leavers need work and the agricultural sector needs a work force. I hope yesterday will go a little way to providing both and encourage others to explore this avenue.”