We thought you might like to read an extract from an interview Chris did for online magazine ‘Recourse’ about LandWorks from the beginning, answering some frequently asked questions along the way…
The sun was beaming down as we pulled into the grounds of LandWorks on the Dartington Estate in rural Devon. Matching its warmth was the firm handshake of founder Chris Parsons as he greeted us outside his wooden clad office, a tall burly fellow with kind eyes and a jovial spirit.
Can you tell us a little about how LandWorks started?
The first guys to start were four men. Three were on day release from prison and one lad was serving a license in the community. So they and I really started the project I suppose.
When we began, there was absolutely nothing here until a portacabin was donated to us from a building site. It arrived and the roof had blown off on the A38. This symbolises where we were. This was just a bare field so everything you see has been built by the guys themselves. There’s quite a sense of ownership about it all. On any one day we could have between five and seven men. Devon is unusual for such a small place in that it’s got three prisons; Exeter, Dartmoor and Channings Wood. So for a small county, every night there are about 2000 men locked up.
We use woodworking, vegetable growing, construction and landscaping as the work structure. We do try very hard to have a work ethic here but around that structure we weave I guess, soft skills. Social skills. We have a communal lunch every day. We cook and everyone sits down together and we may invite people which is great because it’s all about mixing.
What’s your background?
I didn’t think I’d be doing this when I was twenty. I set up a landscape company about 25 years ago in Totnes and one of the first guys I employed was an ex-addict. He was an alcoholic at the time and the outdoor work did him good. He’d sort of thrive and then stumble so we had to get him through rehab a couple of times.
Then I started taking men who would come and work with us on release from HMP Channings Wood, which was pretty hairy for them on their first few days. It worked because they were being accepted. We based a lot of this on that principle I suppose, the feeling that you may have made some awful mistakes and you’re in a bit of a mess but you can be accepted. You’re not going to be judged for that, for your worst moment, you’re not going to be judged forever, or hopefully not.
Do Police Officers visit?
Yes from trainees on placement to quite high ranking police officers who have come, I think partly because sometimes they don’t believe that these guys can reform themselves. I think they want to see it. Some of them have a strong belief that that’s what the job is about; they are there to serve the community.
What inspired you to go down this route?
There’s lots of things, it was a development over time. I guess somewhere in there I have a belief myself that people are fundamentally alright.
Everybody is so different, the term ‘prisoner’ is hopeless, it’s just too black and white. Every single person has many common themes and similarities in their lives that got them to where they are, but when you listen to the story of the individual, they are so different. There are some people who will say ‘Yep I’m a hardened criminal’ and almost be proud of it, others would say they didn’t do anything wrong.
Often when people start here the story they give you is a bit odd. They’re probably at the lowest point of their life. They meet new people and want to tell them the better story about themselves. They’re trying to say ‘I’m not who you might think I am just because I’m a prisoner’. Quite understandably they want to give the better version of themselves.
So if someone comes in as a proud hardened criminal, you’re trying to find a way of reprogramming them so they can be proud about something else?
I don’t know if we could say that we undertake to reprogramme as such. Definitely allowing them to be proud of things they never thought they could be proud of that’s very important, again if you go back into their childhoods, most of them have had very little support or been criticised or made to feel useless and that becomes a story through life. If they turn a wooden bowl or make or grow even the simplest of things then that builds self worth which is really what a lot of this is about.
Do you have big plans? Is it a model you will export to other places?
I think we’re trying to prove what we’re doing works, which brings into it a whole other notion about what people think is its success. At the moment 93% of the guys who came here on day release are in full time employment after they’ve left us. They are resettled so for us it’s a fantastic statistic.
There’s a much bigger picture really, if point A is where you’re offending and point B is where you’re a perfect member of society, well there may be blips along the way, you’ve got to ride those blips with them. Supporting people in many different ways is very important and I would say that’s success, that the offending is getting less. It doesn’t have to just be a categorical ‘right they’re sorted and not re-offending’, it’s reducing the reoffending along the way.
You can take lots of other measures of success. I think that the community here are interested is a great success and that we’re still going is a great success, that people want to put money into it… there’s many different types of success. The fact you’re here and you want to hear and talk about this, that’s great. And it’s all about what these guys are doing, it’s not really about what I’m doing.
When the time comes to leave this place, do you find people are reluctant to go?
Yes, there’s a great sense of ownership to it and we haven’t really lost contact with anybody yet, they often come back and want to show that they are doing really well which is nice. We’ve realised that our support goes way beyond the months that you’re here, it goes on for years really.
The older guys who are here, men in their 50s often give advice to the younger lads. I think it is helpful, they just want to stop the cycle that they were in. I don’t know how much the young guys pay attention to it.
Do you think you almost need that naivety in the first place?
You do, you want to be incredibly optimistic that things are probably going to work out.
Also in convincing organisations, I remember going to a meeting with some fairly high up people in probation and the lead probation manager was playing with his phone whilst I was trying to do my pitch, he wasn’t interested at all really, and now he’s a huge supporter of LandWorks.
The same with the prison you imagine they get lots of initiatives, why would they believe that this idiot’s going to do anything really, so you’ve got to keep on and almost ignore it I think, just keep on. That’s what I’d tell someone actually, just keep on doing it. Don’t give up.
Photos and words credit: Recourse