The charity Fine Cell Work is giving offenders new skills and confidence for life after prison through training in creative needlecraft.

The challenges experienced by prisons have been in the spotlight recently with stories of overcrowding, low staff morale and stretched resources. But a charity called Fine Cell Work has been working with offenders in prisons. The results have been impressive.

The charity trains prisoners in high-quality, creative needlework in their cells and textiles in training in prison workshops “to foster hope, discipline and employability”. The aim is to allow them to finish their sentences with work skills, mental resilience, money earned and saved, self-belief and support with further training on release. This helps them to connect to society and to leave prison with the confidence and financial means to stop offending. One man, who is coming to the end of his 15 year sentence, is hoping to set up his own business as a result of the training received in prison.

The charity works in over 30 British prisons. training offenders to create highly-crafted cushions, bags, pictures and patchwork quilts. Training is carried out by experienced volunteers. The work is of a superb quality and has been exhibited in museums and galleries across the UK.  An exhibition in 2010 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London featured a beautiful quilt made by prisoners at Wandsworth prison. Their work has also been commissioned by The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, , Kensington Palace, The Houses of Parliament, English Heritage (Dover Castle), Tate Modern, The Old Vic and many other prestigious organisations.

At OCN London we have been working with Fine Cell Work to accredit two training programmes. One is in machine made and hand stitched soft furnishings. The other is hand stitching for interiors, covering embroidery, canvas work and quilt making. As there were no ‘off the shelf’ programmes that met the needs of Fine Cell Work, they approached us to create and accredit courses that were tailor-made to suit their needs.

Because of the roll-on, roll-off nature of training in prisons, Fine Cell Work needed an awarding organisation that was flexible in their approach. OCN London fitted the brief exactly. But there were other reasons. Training manager Wendy Cramer explains: “OCN London’s commitment to the values of social justice and providing opportunities for many ‘second chance’ learners to achieve was one of the reasons why we wanted to work with them. The other was their reputation as market leaders in the recognition of learner achievement through credit-based units.”

The charity currently works with over 500 prisoners a year in 32 prisons.

They have the largest workforce of hand-stitchers in Europe – 290 at any one time, and counting. There are more than 200 prisoners on its waiting lists and more than 90 per cent are male.  

Training manuals are being written with the aim of enabling even lone stitchers, working in prisons where there is no class group, to achieve units and have recognition for their work.  The next milestone will be presenting certificates to the first cohort who have gained OCN London awards. For some, this may be their first officially recognised educational achievement.