I spent this evening at Fine Cell Work HQ listening to a talk about all the fantastic work they do and having a nosey round the huge range of products they sell – all hand-stitched by convicts in British prisons.
Rebecca, sales and product manager for the registered charity, was keen to outline the benefits for the prisoners – and rightly so, because even in our small group (it was a talk organised by the indomitable Sarah Corbett of the Craftivist Collective) there were murmurs of suspicion that somehow the scheme was exploitative of the convicts’ situation.
However, Rebecca’s thorough detailing of the circumstances: the lack of activities available for convicts to participate in while locked in their cell, the relatively generous monetary gain to be had from contributing high-quality stitching to the charity (working to commission is most profitable), and testimonies from former seamsters (80% male participants) soon put paid to any swirling suspicion.
Cross-stitch is a unique prison activity in that convicts can do it in their cells at any time of day or night, and a needle isn’t considered a weapon so needle and thread can be carried anywhere. The prisoners receive about a third of the money made from the sale of the object they stitched, so although they receive little enough for the prison authorities to remain happy, it’s much more generous than the maximum £12 a week wages they can earn doing any other legitimate job behind bars.
Many of the contributors have said that they feel calmer, more worthwhile, and satisfied after completing a project for Fine Cell Work. Learning a new skill in such an empty environment must be a real lifeline for some of the prisoners – I know that were I ever to find myself in that situation I’d grab such an opportunity with both hands.
It’s competitive – at any one time there’s a long list of prisoners waiting to get involved should a current contributor decide they don’t want to do it any more, or – the Holy Grail – get released. Once released, particularly keen former contributors can go on to become Fine Cell Work Ambassadors.
250 largely female volunteers make the whole scheme possible, donating their time and needlepoint expertise to travel into prisons and hold workshops teaching convicts how to stitch to the required standard. Some of the patterns are stunningly complex, while most are beautiful. One specially-commissioned wall hanging for Virgin, based on the classic Rolling Stones lips image but with a William Morris-style floral faded into the background, is just breathtaking. Stitched by one extra-talented seamster, and sold for hundreds of pounds.
Products in general aren’t cheap, with cushions beginning at about £75, but when you see the level of dedication invested by everyone involved you’ll see it’s money well spent.