Our new MD Kate Markey and I visit Blue Sky Inside’s workshop at HMP High Down. The workshop employs prisoners to make wooden puzzle games called ‘Bridget’ for Et Games. We also run a small textiles workshop at the prison making canvas bags in which the games are sold.
In the prison visitors’ waiting room, there is on a plaque on the wall with a quote from Winston Churchill. “The mark and measure of a nation’s treatment of criminals … is characterised by tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if only you can find it in the heart of every person”.
We meet Gary, the workshop’s prison-based instructor, who works with Allison, Blue Sky Inside’s Programme Manager, to train, employ and support the men at HMP Highdown. Gary is an ex-film set designer whose last assignment before retiring to a quieter life (in prison) was working on the James Bond film Sky Fall – “I’ve gone from Her Majesty’s Secret Service to Her Majesty’s Establishment”, he quips. Spending time with Gary, it’s clear to see his passion and dedication, the very embodiment of Churchill’s dictum. “My job,” he explains, “is basically to teach guys woodwork. Some have not done any woodwork at all. So I start with the very basics but what I love is when they get the hang of it and start making things. Then they start turning up early for the workshop sessions and can’t wait to be let in. Then I know they’ve got the bug…” Churchill I’m sure would say at this point that Gary has found the treasure within.
Once the men in the workshop have achieved their basic woodwork qualifications, Gary gets them making all sorts of things: chess pieces, benches, bird feeders, children’s chairs. All hand-made, carefully crafted, lovingly dove-tailed and planed. And for Blue Sky Inside they make the Bridget puzzle game. It involves a complex process of cutting up blocks, sanding and staining them dark or blonde. Chief operator of the process is Colin*, a prisoner coming to the end of a 22-year sentence. Chatting to Colin about his impending release (he’ll be moving to a resettlement prison soon, from where he hopes to get in touch with Blue Sky about a job in the community) he’s full of curiosity, and perhaps a little trepidation. He has lots of touching questions about life on the outside, things he’s read about but not yet experienced. For example, how do you go about ‘googling’ something? And why do people seem to need an iphone and an ipad?
Given his impending departure, Colin has taken the trouble to handwrite on sheets of A4 a manual on how to make the Bridget game, a step-by-step guide for his successor. I suspect that Colin could do with an equally-detailed guide for the puzzles and challenges of modern life, having been locked away for so long. Blue Sky will do what we can to help him on his way.
*Not his real name