interview :: fine cell work

Katie | August 29, 2011

Fine Cell Work is a social enterprise that teaches needlework to prison inmates and sells their products. Prisoners work while locked in their cells, and while the earnings give them hope, skills and independence, the work itself seems to give them some sort of peace.

Fine Cell Work - Inmates stitching

I spoke to Elena Hall to find out more.Is there a particular moment that’s stood out for you in terms of pride in what the enterprise has achieved?

In 2010 the ‘Wandsworth Quilt’ was displayed at the V&A Quilts exhibition which was designed and made at HMP Wandsworth. Shown alongside a short film about its creation, the quilt was seen by thousands of people and was considered by many as one of the most memorable pieces in the show. It was the product of over two years work which saw the curator of the exhibition visiting Wandsworth prison on a regular basis with pieces from the archives of the museum. This generated interest in the history and processes of quilts as well as a great deal of pride in the men involved in the making, who knew that they were making a piece to be hung in the one of the most prestigious museums in the world. One prisoner said: “It’s the creation of the work for the V&A quilt that not only gave us great pride but also purpose while we are serving our time. We used our surroundings and feelings to come up with the ideas for the patches that go to make up the quilt.”

Fine Cell Work participant hard at work

Have any of the participants in the scheme gone on to achieve success in the craft world after their release?

We are working to support ex-prisoners more and more and now work with a small number who continue to volunteer and work for us. One has started up his own soft furnishings business making cushions and curtains and another sells his paintings at our events.

Is there an effect of the scheme on rates of re-offending? 

We are just finishing a formal evaluation on the work that we do and how it affects prisoners lives. Actual statistics on reoffending rates are very difficult to source but we do know that prisoners who do Fine Cell Work often move on to other educational courses within the prison system, become calmer and less aggressive. (They) are able to save money for their release, and have less incidences of breakdown and self-harm – all of which contribute to less chance of reoffending upon release.

In-cell quilting Fine Cell Work

80% of your stitchers are men – is this just reflective of the proportion of prisoners, or does this initiative have particular appeal to men? (Needlework could be seen as quite a girlie pursuit!)

Yes it is reflective of the proportion of prisoners. However there is a long tradition of male stitchers; from medieval times to the tailors, sailors and soldiers of the past 100 years. Indeed, if you search the world ‘manbroidery’ on the Internet, you’ll find a host of male communities around the world stitching, blogging and sharing. Most of the male prisoners we work with have not picked up a needle before, let alone finely embroidered a beautiful cushion, but they are taught by our exceptional volunteers and start with basic stitches and many soon get very very good at it. The money they can potentially earn through doing the work is often a driving factor in them coming along to a the group but most grow to really enjoy it and depend on it to pass the many hours of ‘lock up’ in their cells.

What’s in it for you personally? Why work for Fine Cell Work rather than another social enterprise or crafts organisation?

Fine Cell Work has a unique vision that is that prisoners can do a professional standard craft during the many hours of wasted time spent in their cells (prisoners are locked up on average for 17 hours a day). In return they can earn a small amount of money, pride, self-respect and the knowledge they are part of a successful social business that is supported by people who believe prisoners can be part of our society. Every day is different and it is hugely rewarding seeing what can be achieved in the most difficult environments.

What are the biggest challenges Fine Cell Work faces?

We currently work with 400 prisoners, all of whom are very productive so one of our main challenges at the moment is that we need to be able to sell the many cushions, quilts, bags and small items they make.  Another challenge right now is the many cuts facing prisons at the moment which means longer lock up times, less activities and less association time, which in turn has meant that our classes in a number of prisons are being cut short or made less frequent.

Prisoner with Fine Cell Work quilt

I’ve come across criticism in the past for projects that offer prisoners paid work – have you? How would you respond? 

There is on average 100 hours in each of our cushions for which the stitcher will earn on average between 35 and 40% of the sale price; on an hourly rate this is a fairly low wage which the prisoner works very hard to achieve. Many of the prisoners who do Fine Cell Work use the money to stay in touch with family members, either on the telephone (telephone calls are enormously expensive in prison) or by paying for them to come and visit. This continued contact with family members and friends can be really important in ensuring a prisoner has a support network around them when they are released as well as making their time inside slightly more bearable. As most male prisoners go from being the main breadwinner to becoming dependent on money sent in from wives, partners, family and friends the ability to earn some of their own also enables the individual to retain some pride and self-respect within a system intent on removing every ounce of this.

Why would you recommend someone commission or purchase one of your products rather than any other handmade product?

You are buying a product with a story, beautifully handmade and created in prison, which gives hope and pride to an individual. Customers are encouraged to write and thank the prisoner who made their cushion, which creates an important link with the outside world and helps the prisoner to feel part of the society from which he or she is excluded.

We are supported by sales of our products, which count as 50% of our income (the other 50% is generated through donations and charitable trusts) so your purchase enables us to continue our work in prisons and to expand into the many prisons where there is such a lack of meaningful creative activity.

Fine Cell Work gives prisoners the chance to reflect on and rebuild their lives through craft and achievement.

Our cushions, bags and quilts, which are made 100% in British prisons, are a truly ethical alternative.

Who are your volunteers? What sort of people are they? Why do they get involved? 

We work with a wide range of volunteers (150 approx in total) from all walks of life. Some are women who have had a career or background in professional stitch and are now retired or work part-time. They become involved because they believe in the restorative and calming qualities of stitch and the overall ethos of Fine Cell Work.

You can read prisoners’ stories about their experiences with Fine Cell Work and buy products on their website. And you can see Tom Dixon’s design for Fine Cell Work released at the London Design Festival along with a collection of exclusive handmade items as part of Multiplex at the Dock.

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Founding Editor – Katie Treggiden

Having established confessions of a design geek in 2010, Katie Treggiden has gone on to a career in design journalism, writing for titles such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, Elle Decoration, Stylist, Design Milk and Ideal Home. In 2014, she launched Fiera, an independent magazine dedicated to discovering new talent at the world’s design fairs. Her second book, Makers of East London, was published in 2015.

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