“We are the music makers, we are the dreamers of dreams”
Willy Wonka played by Gene Wilder in ‘Charlie and The Chocolate Factory’ (1971)
I catch up with Maureen, one of Blue Sky Inside’s employees at the Stitch in Time textiles workshop at HMP Bronzefield, a few days before she’s due to be released. I last saw Maureen just before Christmas when she told me about her granddaughter, Zinaida, and how she’d been inspired by her Nana’s work in prison to ask for a sewing machine for Christmas.
I ask Maureen how Zinaida has been getting on. “Brilliant! She and her mum are making all sorts. In fact, the whole family’s now at it!” says Maureen. “My daughter – I’ll be moving in with her when I get released – has turned the garden shed into a craft and textiles workshop for Zinaida,” explains Maureen. “It’s going to be called Zinaida’s Boutique. Her brothers and sisters will be joining in, cousins visiting too. Even my youngest grandson who’s 7 will be helping out. He says he wants to be the engineer in case there’s a problem with one of the machines.”
Though it’ll mainly be a hangout for her grandchildren, Maureen will also be allowed into the boutique. After all, she has work to do… Through Blue Sky’s Matched Grant Scheme, Maureen has bought a sewing machine which she’ll use for various jobs and projects. “It’s a dream come true having that machine to look forward to when I leave. I look at the brochure every evening in my room, reading about what it can do.” She already has a commission – producing curtains for her ex-landlord, who owns over 100 flats. “I’ve warned him though, they’re not going to be ‘beige neutral’. They’ll be colourful, vibrant and alive.” Vibrant and alive are good words to describe Maureen as she talks about the boutique. “I think you definitely need something, a project, a purpose, to look forward to when you leave prison. Something to keep you focussed. Stitch in Time has given me that focus, got me interested in sewing, something I didn’t know I cared about, kept me working and learning while I’ve been inside, and I want that to continue on the outside.”
Maureen’s face lights up again as she sets out her vision for Zinaida’s boutique. It’ll have loads of boxes of fabric, zips and buttons; stuff that you can pick up at junk shops. “It’ll be a place where you can make something out of nothing,” explains Maureen. “The other day, my daughter made a costume for my grandson for World Book Day at school. All the other parents had bought their kids stuff to wear. But my daughter made her costume herself and it got first prize. It was Willy Wonka’s purple suit from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…”
Willy Wonka would approve I’m sure of the magical factory that is Stitch in Time, producing not only clothes and textiles but also dreams.
Maureen (not her real name) will be one of the first women at the workshop to receive mentoring support when they leave prison. In a pilot initiative funded by the Oak Foundation, Blue Sky is working with our merger partners RAPt to support 6 women ‘through the gate’ over the next 12 months, helping them to develop and to implement action plans for effective resettlement.
Many thanks to Dan Watkins, Parliamentary Spokesman for Tooting, for organising the visit of the Secretary of State for Justice, Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP, to see Quadron’s partnership with Blue Sky in action at Wandsworth. The centre piece of the morning was the induction and training of 5 new Blue Sky recruits as grounds maintenance operatives – including a demonstration for the Minister of how to use a strimmer (as a dedicated horticulturist, he showed a keen interest!) Good luck to the Blue Sky boys as they start their 6-month journey with us and engage with the training and housing support that we also offer.
It wasn’t only Blue Sky’s work that was being showcased on the day. We heard from George Turner about his outstanding work with Carney’s Community to motivate and mentor young ex-offenders, a project inspired by boxing legend Mick Carney who turned around many lives through engagement with boxing. Alongside George was Danny, taken on by Blue Sky on referral from Carney’s 9 months ago. Danny passed on to the new Blue Sky recruits the message that he was in their shoes a little while ago. And now, having made the most of the chance, he’s progressed to working in railway maintenance, with good future prospects.
Chris Grayling MP with Dan Watkins, Cristina Fernandez and Julie Muir from RAPt and Blue Sky’s Carwyn Gravell
Blue Sky supervisor Darren showing the Justice Minister how to use a strimmer
Also inspirational were our merger partners RAPt, which helps over 20,000 offenders with substance misuse problems every year, working in 26 prisons in England and Wales. We are working with RAPt to create a referral pathway to take on graduates of its prison rehab programmes as Blue Sky employees, with a particular interest in employing prisoners on Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL). Living proof of how ROTL can work was given by RAPt graduate Wayne*. Coming to the end of a 10-year sentence, Wayne has been working for RAPt as a Resettlement Worker, leaving HMP Standford Hill each day and getting the train to their Vauxhall HQ. By working while still in prison, Wayne is building a future. “It’s a future full of hope…” he says. “For the first time ever I’ve actually saved some money, which I can use to help with housing when I get out, or to get a car…”
There are many others, says Wayne, who would leap at the chance of working on ROTL. Back in prison, Wayne tells people about RAPt’s partnership with Blue Sky and the jobs we have for ex-offenders. “A light goes on when you tell them this,” he says. “They feel hope.” Thanks to partners like Quadron, Carney’s and RAPt, this hope is being fulfilled by Blue Sky for more and more ex-offenders.
How paid ROTL works
- Prisoners can apply for paid ROTL when they have 25% or less left on their sentence
- Before being eligible, they have to have undertaken 28 days’ voluntary work
- From then on they can earn a wage
- The wage is received by the National Offender Management Service. It deducts 40% that goes to victims’ charities and then pays the balance into the prisoner’s bank account
* Name has been changed
Aged 23 and with 3 young children to support Shanitta was arrested for a drugs offence and handed a prison sentence. She appreciates that she was fortunate to have a loving family who could take care of her kids while she was inside.
Shanitta had heard about Blue Sky from a friend years ago and when she was ultimately released from prison she remembered the name and got in touch. She had various jobs before prison but as a single parent she says she found it hard to juggle children and work. She also didn’t have any experience at all in the type of work that Blue Sky offers but she was so desperate to secure a job after prison that she didn’t mind. After an interview Shanitta was taken on to work in the Hillingdon grounds maintenance team and she started off on a large flower planting contract.
After completing her contract with Blue Sky Shanitta was accepted onto a bus driving course. On passing the training she was offered full-time employment doing routes around Hounslow. To top it off the job offer came on her birthday! She recently said:
“When I was convicted I thought to myself ‘that’s it, my life is over, I’ll never get a job’. But, Blue Sky welcomed me with open arms and were even really supportive about me being able to work around my kids.
I figured that if I can get stuck in to a job I have never tried before then the sky’s the limit. That’s why I had the confidence to try new things that I wouldn’t have dared to before and I realised that I do have options open to me.
I was always worried about being judged but I felt comfortable at Blue Sky and I found that they were even more helpful and supportive than I could have imagined”
We were delighted to be able to welcome the High Sheriff of Berkshire, Chris Khoo, and his wife Naomi, who had requested to come along and meet one of our teams working in ‘his’ county. This was even more enjoyable as one of our newest clients, the internationally renowned Johnson & Johnson, were kind enough to host the visit at their superb facilities near Wokingham.
As an independent non-political Royal appointment for a single year some of the duties of a High Sheriff date back to Saxon times, but one aspect that remains to this day is that they still have a responsibility to the Crown for the maintenance of law and order. High Sheriffs actively lend support and encouragement to crime prevention agencies and to the voluntary sector. In recent years High Sheriffs in many parts of England and Wales have been particularly active in encouraging crime reduction initiatives, especially amongst young people. We hope Blue Sky managed to demonstrate how we work hard to help reduce re-offending in Berkshire.
Johnson & Johnson may be a huge multinational organisation, but they are also keenly aware of how big companies are able to help local businesses, and are leading the way in a dedication to bring social enterprise and charities into their supply chain. Blue Sky were incredibly pleased to be offered the chance to take on the grounds maintenance at their Wokingham site, and the team working at the site are keenly aware that we need to keep the standards up at the very highest level. On the day, John, Wesley and Jade were introduced to Chris and his wife, and were able to tell them about the opportunity companies like J&J offer to help ex-offenders back into long term work.
Please take a moment to read Katie Allen’s excellent article in today’s Guardian:
Steve tells his story and Mick highlights the difference between what a job means to an ex-offender compared to some people he worked with previously in The City.
Last week I had the pleasure of welcoming Will Prochaska, Ben Houghton, Gail Jones and Philippa Harrison from RAPt (Blue Sky’s merger partner) to our Stitch in Time textiles workshop at HMP/YOI Bronzefield. As workshop manager Allison Enenche showed our guests what Stitch in Time produces (from bags for Anya Hindmarch to haute couture garments – see a picture of our latest item below), I chatted to one of the ladies who works there, Maureen.
Maureen asked me who the guests were. I explained that RAPt helps prisoners who are addicted to drink and drugs, and that Blue Sky was planning to work with RAPt to provide mentoring support for women when they leave the workshop. “Smart move,” said Maureen. “A lot of women are in here because of drink and drugs and it becomes a big problem again when they leave. I’m an addict myself…” Maureen talked openly about her troubles with drink, but she also explained how being in the workshop helped her condition. “With an addictive personality, you do everything to the max. It’s not just one biscuit it’s the whole pack. It’s the same when I work, it becomes all-consuming, but in a good way. I’m 100% focused and dedicated. It’s a funny thing, I think addicts make good workers”.
Maureen went on to talk about her granddaughter and how they often chat on the phone. They talk about Maureen’s work at Stitch in Time, the skills that she has learned, and all the things she can now sew and make. Time again at Blue Sky I hear about our ex-offender employees’ desire to be role models for their family – a heart-felt wish for shame about the past to be replaced by pride and hope for the future. Maureen smilingly tells me that, “inspired by Nana”, her granddaughter who’s “dead into fashion” has asked her mum for a special present this Christmas – a sewing machine. And when she gets out in the New Year, Maureen is going to teach her how to make her own clothes.
Maureen, be proud, your granddaughter wants to be like you.
The latest garment produced at Stitch in Time, a dress worn by Gill Yarrow, the Lord Mayor’s wife, at the Lord Mayor’s banquet.
After joining the British Army aged 17 Wayne served two tours in Northern Ireland as a trooper in the late 1980s. He saw some horrific incidents during that time involving some of his close friends and colleagues “that really affected” him, he said. On returning home he slowly adjusted back into civilian life even got married. However, it only lasted ten years as Wayne’s depression about the events during his time in the Northern Ireland conflict became too much for him to cope with. He says he just couldn’t think straight and had nightmares and the doctor diagnosed him with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
During the next decade Wayne worked in the drainage and tarmac industry but due to PTSD he says he couldn’t focus. Things got so bad that he fell into some serious financial difficulties which lead to him drinking in excess and becoming an alcoholic. He needed help but didn’t know how to get it and then one day in a drunken stupor Wayne decided to go to the local bookies and rob it.
In court Wayne admitted his guilt and the Judge gave him four years in prison. Wayne said “That was the beginning to my road to recovery. I had routine and structure in prison, bit like the army, it was regimental”. He enjoyed the gym, wasn’t drinking alcohol anymore and his mental health quickly started improving. He did so well in prison that in the last year of his sentence probation approached Amey to get him some work on day release on the contract Amey has with Hampshire County Council to manage and maintain the county’s roads.
Wayne was recently released and to ensure he received adequate resettlement support Amey suggested that Blue Sky employ him. After impressing us at his interview we took him on and he continues to work on the tarmacking contract with Amey. He says:
“Blue Sky took me on when I came out of prison and I needed support the most. Without them I would have slipped back into a world of depression. For years I didn’t like what I looked at in the mirror but with the support of Blue Sky I can see the best ‘me’ that me and my family are proud of. I have my self-respect back and I am looking forward to a happier future”