Fine Cell Work

A social enterprise that teaches prisoners needlework to give them the confidence and the financial means to support themselves on release.

Life after bars

“When an individual is sentenced by a judge, there should be an appendix saying, I sentence you to five years imprisonment, to rot in prison, to waste your life and appear again in the free world less developed, less responsible, further from your family, and less able to cope in a difficult and possibly friendless word.”

Lady Anne Tree started visiting prisons in the 1970s and become increasingly frustrated by the wasted time behind bars and the corrosive effects of this boredom. She began campaigning to bring change to our prisons and in 1997 she was allowed to set up a scheme that would pay inmates to sew.

Her idea was simple: train prisoners in needlework so they could occupy themselves during the lonely, wasted hours and give them a share of the sale to help them re-enter society and decrease their chances of reoffending after release.

Although it was a worthy cause, she was adamant that there should be “no whiff of charitable acceptance about it”. The cushions should be of a professional standard: something the creator would be proud of and the customer wanted to own. The designs are governed by rigorous process which involves a committee of renowned designers and a testing process that can take from six months to a year from design to production.

Now in it’s 19th year, Fine Cell Work employs 72 volunteers in 18 prisons across the country. They teach more than 450 prisoners a year – 97 percent of whom are men – how to sew with designs by Gavin Turk, Nina Campbell and John Stefanidis amongst others. Their works have been commissioned and sold by the Tate Modern, the V&A and the National Gallery.

Why sewing?

Having so enjoyed sewing herself, Lady Anne knew it to be therapeutic and a means of escape – two things that are vital for those living behind behind bars. The kits come in a variety of skill levels and a range of techniques. Some prisoners stitch for a few months and others remain with Fine Cell Work for 15 years. The prisoner's progress from simple designs (which can take up to 100 hours to complete) to intricate patterns and bespoke commissions. Through sewing the prisoners foster discipline, self-esteem and a valued practical skill.

Why payment?

Too often prisoners are discharged with too little money and support to find a place to live or survive until a job is found. Fine Cell Work tackles this by giving prisoners 37 percent of each sale. Payment means they are justly rewarded for their labours, it helps them feel connected to the society and allows them to leave with financial means to better support themselves on release.

Visit the Fine Cell Work website.

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