Baking pink birthday cakes modelled on My Little Pony is not what usually springs to mind when thinking of pastimes of adult, male prisoners. Yet this does not seem to faze prisoners at Lindholme’s category C, medium security prison, which also holds prisoners serving life sentences.

Nearly three years ago, the £1.5 million fully functional bakery was built in response to a skills shortage in the Yorkshire and Humberside area, which was jointly funded by the Prison Service and Yorkshire Forward, the regional development agency. Since its launch, Fosters Bakery, Greggs, Jackson’s and Warburtons have taken an interest in supporting learners and some have employed ex-prisoners. Located approximately 10 miles north of Doncaster, the prison is now able to train 30 prisoners in the bakery at a time. The total number of qualifications gained by prisoners at the bakery so far is approximately 800 NVQ Units.

high standards

"I’m very impressed with what the men can do after such a short period of training," says Tony Watts, bakery manager. "One of the men got married the other day, so we sought permission for his cell mate to make his wedding cake. You really would be shocked at the standard achieved in such a short period of time. It was stunning.

"The men start to dabble in bakery and realise they actually enjoy it. When they find they are good at something, sometimes for the first time in their lives, it motivates them to do well. Many of the men have had a very bad start in life and have left school with no qualifications, so the kick I get from the job is actually seeing the men start to learn and enjoy the learning process. I’ve seen grown men cry when they’ve been handed their qualification. Imagine that, suddenly, for the first time in your life, you have a qualification that says you’re good at something. It can be quite emotional."

vocational training

The bakery teaching staff are employed by City College Manchester, which holds the education contract at the prison. The prison offers a variety of vocational training, matched to identified skill shortages and developed through engaging with employers and offering qualifications which meet their needs. The prison aims to develop personal responsibility, encourage the prisoners’ interests and skills and improve their chances of finding a job on release, to help prevent re-offending.

According to Home Office research, 90% of prisoners face unemployment on release and 60% of those re-convicted are unemployed. Research also suggests that employment reduces the risk of re-offending by between a third and a half.

"Working in the bakery here makes me want to get out of bed in the morning," says prisoner Chris, who has an NVQ qualification at Levels 1 and 2 in Bakery, and Levels 1 and 2 in Food and Drink Manufacturing Operations. Chris worked in a bakery for six months after leaving school when he was 15. He says: "The bakery is great; it is an escape from prison routine."

Another prisoner at Lindholme, Andrew, who has the same qualifications as Chris, has also completed a course in sugarpaste work at Level 1 in cake decorating and has an OCR - Oxford, Cambridge and Royal Society of Arts - for preparation in life and work, which includes subjects such as health and safety. Andrew has also achieved a diploma in Information Communication Technology while at the prison. "This time last year, I had no qualifications. Now I have 25 certificates," says Andrew. "When I am released, I definitely want to use my baking skills. I love it in our bakery. Of course, I have good days and bad days, but I gave it a go and have not looked back since. Maybe I will try a Bachelor of Science degree in Food Science when I get out. I’ve had enough of wasting my life. I’m doing something about it."

The bakery products made by prisoners go to the kitchen as part of the daily diet. The only bakery products bought in are snacks and biscuits. There are currently 930 prisoners. The bakery makes 4,000 bread buns a day, 240 demi-baguettes, 200 large white loaves, 100 brown loaves and about 1,200 items of confectionery and pastries including Danish and croissants. The bakery makes cookies and muffins for training purposes and the ingredients are supplied by Bako and the flour by Rank Hovis. "We train men as realistically as possible, so they know what to expect on the outside," says Watts. "To name some of our equipment, we have Tagliavini ovens, Star planetary mixers and Effedue spiral mixers. We teach things such as Continental breads, sourdoughs, baguettes, pitta breads, croissants and ethnic breads, such as naans. One of the lessons they most enjoy is making croissants. At the moment I have two Portuguese prisoners who have had bakery experience at home and one actually leads a group in the production of croissants."

In March 2005, the partnership behind the bakery received the Leeds ’Big Difference Award’ aimed at public sector organisations for making a ’big difference’ to people’s lives. "We didn’t even realise that we had been nominated," adds Watts. "To give you an idea of the project, Leeds United was taking young kids off the street to give them football training. We were given the award for our training with prisoners and were very proud to win it so soon after opening the bakery ."

Watts was also awarded the Butler Trust Certificate, which recognised the exceptionally dedicated and creative work with prisoners.

"I want the baking world to know that we exist, because we hope to have more support in finding employment for these men. Yes, they have committed crimes. But when they leave, they have served their sentence and want to re-enter society. I wish there were more employers out there prepared to give them an opportunity and a chance to prove themselves. Our doors are open for anyone in the industry to visit and see the work produced. I would love bakers to visit, so I can show them what our men can do." n