Lily Canter 10th April 2018
Following the breakdown of his marriage, 54-year-old alcoholic Tony found himself on the streets of Bedford in a “living hell”.
“I was kicked in the head, I was urinated on. The streets would have killed me. Eventually after three months I bit my pride and went to a night shelter.”
I used to think I was thick and stupid. But this is like my family now and I now believe in myself
A few months later, Tony was living in a shared house and was referred to Companions Real Bread, a social enterprise which works with ex-offenders.
Volunteering at the bakery has transformed Tony’s life; giving him confidence, a sense of community and new skills.
“It is the best thing that has ever happened to me. My dad used to hit me and I walked out of home at 15. I used to think I was thick and stupid. But this is like my family now and I now believe in myself.”
Tony, who has been sober for 14 months, has been working unpaid at the bakery for the past six months. He has been learning how to make breads, pizzas and biscuits as well as serving customers.
“I would have been happy just cleaning but I have been doing everything. It is smashing. I am getting a trade as a trainee baker. I get a bit embarrassed serving the customers as I’m not good at maths and I can’t read or write very good but I have been going to classes and it has given me so much confidence. My dream is to be on the pay roll.”
Having spent time in prison for assault when he was younger, Tony knows all too well how difficult it is for an ex-offender to get a job.
“People see the tattoos and the record and won’t give you a job. So this has given me a second chance. And I love making the bread. It gives me peace of mind and happiness.”
The day we speak to Tony he is particularly excited because it is the first time he is seeing his children in 14 months.
“All my money goes to my children. I get food from the food bank and my dole money goes to them. I will get a job, I am positive now and then I can treat my children.”
Tony is just one of dozens of offenders who have been helped by the company, which was set up two years ago by former school housemistress Maggie Rich and ex drug addict Nigel Spencer.
The ethos of the business is to produce honest bread with no additives and to create a safe space for people to be honest in their lives.
“I wanted to run a business that ex-offenders could work in to give them motivation, skills and work opportunities. They are getting skills in food production, catering, retail, sales and marketing.
“It gives people a reason to get up in the morning. We can also give more intensive support if needed and give them a space to get away from negative influences,” says Rich.
Based in Mill Street, Bedford, the bakery has a small coffee shop attached where customers can see the bread being made. The only ingredients used are flour, water, salt and yeast.
The business was first envisioned back in 2015 when Rich was made redundant from a Community Resettlement Support Project which used volunteers to befriend and support ex-offenders.
This was the catalyst for her to combine her domestic bread making skills with a vision to continue rehabilitating prison leavers.
She approached Spencer, who also worked on the resettlement project, to ask him to come into partnership with her.
As a former repeat offender himself, Spencer was the ideal candidate to help rehabilitate people as they left Bedford Prison.
One such inmate was 43-year-old Gordon, who was released from prison last summer after a decade inside. He started working at the bakery in November.
“It has helped me to get used to being in a working routine, which has been a bit of a shock after coming out. It has also helped me to settle into the area as I am not from Bedford and given me a sense of community.”
When I was in prison I discovered I have a creative side and I didn’t think it was a part of me that existed
Gordon has also discovered a passion for baking and has helped Rich to create product ideas for special events.
“I particularly like making the sourdough bread as it is a longer process. That appeals to my scientific nature, the way the yeast is interacting but it is also creative so it fuels both of my interests. When I was in prison I discovered I have a creative side and I didn’t think it was a part of me that existed.”
His long-term aim is to be self-employed but for now, he is content developing his skills and being part of a supportive community.
“It helps to give you a sense of purpose. I feel like I have a big neon sign above my head but it has not been a negative experience in here. Everyone helps each other out and I look forward to coming here.”
For Rich, this is proof that the business is working, as they have helped 28 people to date, with few incidents.
“I don’t feel that trust is a challenge. We have only had one abuse of trust when someone stole money from us. The challenge is working with people who have never been in paid employment and also balancing the demands of customers against the needs of the volunteers.
“There has been a lot of goodwill towards us. I was ready for a lot of antagonism but actually there has been a lot of understanding.”
Nearly half (46%) of adult prisoners re-offend within 12 months of being released, a number which rises to 60% for those initially sentenced to less than a year, according to recent stats.
Though these rates have remained more or less steady for the last decade, the number of young prisoners re-offending within a year of release is steadily rising, causing some to point to widespread cuts to services which might have offered support to newly-released prisoners in the past.
Whatever the case, organisations like Companions Real Bread will likely be ever more necessary, as a proven method of navigating the often treacherous route back from prison into society.
Lily Canter 10th April 2018