Wagamama is taking part in a programme that offers inmates the chance to learn skills in a professional kitchen and find work upon release. We went to prison to find out more

It’s a damp Wednesday morning in November, and the kitchen at HMP Downview has all the sights, sounds and rules you’d expect of a busy commercial operation. Since 8am, inmates in chef whites have been hurrying trays of butternut squash between vats of bubbling soup as they prepare a midday lunch for the prison’s 350 female inmates.

But today, alongside the usual mass-catered offerings such as jacket potatoes, there are some new dishes on the menu: katsu curry and bang bang cauliflower.

Chefs from the Asian-inspired restaurant chain Wagamama have joined the inmates as part of a skills workshop designed to provide them with a taste of what it’s like to work in a professional restaurant.

The morning session is part of Unlocking Hospitality, a recruitment and career development programme led by the New Futures Network. The group is part of the HM Prison & Probation Service and works with private sector employers to provide support, and potentially careers, to offenders approaching release from prison.

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Source: Andrew Porter

An interior view of the kitchen at HMP Downview

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Source: Andrew Porter

Bang bang cauliflower being prepped

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Source: Andrew Porter

Chicken katsu ready for lunch at HMP Downview

Wagamama is one of 20-plus employers (Greene King and Marston’s are among the others) currently enrolled on the scheme. The session at Downview is its tenth at a UK prison since the chain joined the programme last year.

Chefs will teach participants how to cook Wagamama dishes from scratch, and they’re also on hand to share career advice and insight. “This is our way of making the prison kitchen a Wagamama kitchen,” says Lauren Robbin, early careers partner at Wagamama.

The hospitality experience of the 15 participating inmates varies, but all have expressed an interest in pursuing a career in the sector once released. The majority already work in the prison kitchen daily.

Following the session, Wagamama will work with inmates who are close to release to find them roles, or further training opportunities, within a branch close to their home. The chain has so far hired 16 former offenders since joining the programme.

“At its most basic level, it’s showing them that opportunities are available to them,” Robbin says.

Hope for the future

The prison service already runs its own outreach and rehabilitation programmes designed to prepare inmates for life after release. But the significance of a company that’s not directly connected to the service working with inmates cannot be understated, says Gary Kendall, employment lead at HMP Downview.

“The great thing is when they hear about opportunities [directly] from a company like Wagamama, which is a nationwide chain, it makes it more believable than just me telling them,” he says.

Someone who can speak directly to that is inmate Nikisha, who takes a few minutes out from prepping breaded chicken for the katsu curry to talk to The Grocer.

“It’s brought me a lot of joy,” Nikisha says. “I was worried they’d be judgmental, but it’s felt really natural.”

She’s aspiring to complete a master’s degree in psychology when she’s released in 2027 and, despite never having been to a Wagamama restaurant before, would be interested in working part-time in hospitality to fund her studies.

“This is really inspiring for people. It gives them hope,” Nikisha says.

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Source: Andrew Porter

A Wagamama chef gives pointers at HMP Downview

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Source: Andrew Porter

Lunch at HMP Downview

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Source: Andrew Porter

Stirring a vat of curry sauce at HMP Downview

Wagamama is now working to make sure it can start offering opportunities to inmates like Nikisha before they’re released and is putting processes in place to start offering positions to offenders released on temporary licence (ROTL) from next year.

It’s that willingness to develop the right “support protocols” and be truly flexible that has made the partnership with Wagamama so successful, says Joanna Graham, chair of HMP Downview’s employment advisory board.

“Finding employers is not the difficult bit. The most important part is finding employers who apply the right environment – and then supporting the women to open their minds to what could become a different opportunity for them post-release,” she says. “An event like today is really critical, because one of the biggest barriers is a lack of confidence.”