In a small, overheated room in Wandsworth Prison, the inmates are gathering for a needlework lesson. First to arrive is Michael. He puts his bag of sewing on the table for the teachers, Cherie and Jackie, to inspect. "That's beautiful work," says Cherie. Jackie agrees. Michael, who is doing four years for GBH, beams and rewards the ladies with pictures of his grandchildren. The women "ooh" and "aah" at the little tykes.
Katy Emck, chairperson of Fine Cell Work, the charity that organises the needlework classes, saunters over and picks up the bag. "This is a beautiful as anything you'd get from the Royal College of Needlework," she says. Although I'm a needlework novice, I have to agree with her.
Fine Cell Work was founded in 1995 by the philanthropist Lady Anne Tree. Her idea was that if you give inmates something purposeful to do in prison - something that can make them a bit of money - they're less likely to re-offend when released into society at the end of their stint. She conceived the idea of introducing needlework to prisoners in the 1960s, while volunteering as a prison visitor at HMP Holloway. She got two lifers to sew a needlepoint carpet, which she sold to private collectors in the US. But in those days prisoners weren't allowed to receive payment for work they did. Seeing the exquisite work the men were capable of, Lady Tree fought to establish an organisation in which prisoners could learn a useful skill and be paid for their work.
It seems an unlikely venture, getting convicts to stitch bucolic scenes on to cushion covers, but it works. Today, Fine Cell Work operates in 16 prisons and has about 180 inmates on its books. There is even a waiting list to join the needlework groups. News of a needlework group is mainly spread by word of mouth. Most of the inmates I spoke to heard about their group from their cellmate (all the work is done while the prisoners are in their cells).
None of it would work, however, without the help of the 40 volunteers who teach the prisoners their craft. These teachers are either from the Embroiders' Guild, the Royal School of Needlework, or have a background in professional design. The quality of the teaching is very high, as is the quality of the work. But what if a prisoner can't meet the exacting standards set by the charity? Doesn't that knock their self-esteem? "Occasionally the work is rejected if it's not up to scratch," says Katy. "Our volunteers are very strict on standards, but if someone doesn't grasp it at first, they'll let them develop their technique over a long period. Eventually they'll turn a corner. Even the people who don't shine very quickly get supported, and that's to do with the quality of our teachers. It is self-selecting because the prisoners who elect to do this want to better themselves." Then she adds, cryptically, "We often get people who are on some type of path."
Softly-spoken David, a 35-year-old inmate who is doing 18 months for attempted burglary, appears to be on a path. "The reason I do Fine Cell is because it takes my mind off things," he says. "When I'm depressed it soothes me. Sitting in the cell, your mind works overtime. You wonder what's happening outside. Is my family all right? Sometimes, when you're on your own, you can go haywire, and the best thing to do is relax, but the cell is so small, you can't. Doing Fine Cell takes your mind off all the pressure. Especially if you're having a bad day."
When David completes his sentence at the end of the year, he wants to join Fine Cell Work so that he can teach other prisoners the skills he's learnt inside. Richard, on the other hand, doesn't intend to continue stitching on the outside. I ask Richard if he takes any stick for doing needlepoint in prison. "No," he says. "You just give them stick back." When I look at Richard's powerful build, the numerous scars on his shaved head, the slash across his nose and the home-made Chelsea FC tattoo on his left hand, I realise it's a stupid question. Who'd be dumb enough to give him stick?
The men all agree that needlework has a meditative, calming quality, but the thought of earning a bit of money while chalking off the days is clearly a motivating factor. "Think what it means if you've worked hundreds or thousands of hours and you come out with two grand," says Katy. "You're completely different to the one who'd never done all that work and discovered all that satisfaction and creativity, as well as not had the money. It's kept you calm, given you focus. It's the process that leads to you having that saving, that's the transforming thing." But, sadly, there is still a problem with prisoners earning money, even though lack of money is often the root cause of why they're in prison in the first place. Prisoners can earn a maximum of £500 a year, although Fine Cell Work is lobbying to have the upper limit on prison earnings removed.
Fine Cell Works products are not cheap, but then what hand-crafted products are? A basic cushion costs £40 and a double-bed quilt can sell for £390. Some of the techniques they use, such as in crewel, require a lot of skill and patience. The men get a third of the profits on any items they sell. The money is kept in a bank account for them until they leave, though some can be spent in the prison canteen. The charity encourages private individuals who commission the work to write a thank-you letter to the prisoners on completion of the work. Katy says that the prisoners treasure the letters. They get respect and the feeling that they're doing something good. "A lot of people are quite moved," she says.
But not all the work is commissioned by private individuals. Some of it sells via mail-order, London boutiques, and exhibitions. Top interior designers, such as Jane Churchill and Colefax & Fowler, are also known to commission Fine Cell Work pieces. "Interior designers aren't exactly known for their altruism," says Katy. "They buy our products because they know they're good."
Everyone wins. The customers are delighted with the quality of the work and feel they're doing their charitable bit by buying the Fine Cell Work products. The prisoners learn a skill and earn self-respect and money, and even the prison wardens are happy with the results. One grateful prison officer at Wandsworth wrote to Fine Cell Work, "We had so many applications to come to the first meeting that there was standing-room only. One prisoner sat spellbound. He was someone who had terribly low concentration. I suspect he had paranoid schizophrenia. He was shown an Amish quilt that evening. The next day he had copied the whole thing on to toilet paper, almost perfectly. He showed this to me in the exercise yard. We decided that it was unsafe for him to use needles but Fine Cell Work had him doing designs."
I ask Jackie if she ever feels threatened. After all, here are two genteel, middle-aged ladies, with Home Counties accents, surrounded by some of Britain's hardest men. "I've never been afraid in here," she says. "It's more like Porridge. We're often in this room with eight men, and they are charming. And we don't usually have a prison warder." As we're packing up, an inmate arrives, breathlessly asking if he's in time to join the group. Jackie explains it was a demo for journalists. The man looks gutted.
As we're escorted from the building, I notice that most of the inmates smile and greet us. You'd think all prisons would smell of disinfectant and fear, but this one smells of incense. It all seems very relaxed and jovial. I half expect to see Fletcher and Godber on the landing. It's only when we reach the courtyard that the illusion is shattered. Someone hurls a bottle from a window. Perhaps it's a disgruntled prisoner who didn't get a place on the needlework course.
Fine Cell Work's exhibition and sale of cushions, rugs and tablecloths is at Chelsea Old Town Hall, King's Road, London SW3, 18-19 November (www.finecellwork.co.uk)