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Chris Parsons of LandWorks

"...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."

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.

LandWorks is a charity offering skills based training to serving and ex-prisoners which aspires to make the transition back into society a slightly easier one. Frequent lunches with neighbours and charity supporters encourage communication, whilst training in carpentry and landscaping, amongst others, offer skills which not only could be useful in future employment but also assert a sense of pride and craftsmanship in the work.

We visited on a day when the men were back in prison but evidence of their presence is easy to spot, from the handpainted ceramic tiles, to the digger left poised at the foot of a wall someone is in the process of building. Handcarved notes of positivity and encouragement scatter the woodworking area, and a row of freshly washed t-shirts are hanging on a line waiting patiently to start a new day of work.

As we walked around the site Chris talked us through how LandWorks came to be, the philosophy behind the project and what keeps him motivated.

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 [referring to our location at Landworks], so everything you see has been built by the guys themselves. There’s quite a sense of ownership about it all. Normally there’s a load of noise and people walking around, so it’s a bit different today.

On any one day we could have between four and five men who are on day release from HMP Channings Wood which is our local prison. 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. It’s so important for them to be able to hear about other people’s life stories and actually they’re not that different.

Prisoner statistics in the UK

So do members of the local community come and have lunch?

They do, and that’s been great. From the start we’ve had huge community support and we didn’t really anticipate that. In fact we thought it might be the reverse. ‘Why are you helping them, why aren’t you helping…?’, that sort of thing.

We’d have never got going without the community putting some money in, people giving us ten quid,  or ten thousand quid. Or chickens or helping with some vegetable seed and that’s been lovely and still remains. We’ve now got over a thousand supporters who we try to keep in touch with. I write a blog every couple of weeks, partly to inform and partly to make people feel like they’re part of it.

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, it was just me and a van. 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.

The company was getting bigger over the years and we continued to employ one or two people that were finding life difficult or had run ins with the police. Someone would say ‘Would you take him because of such and such’, and I think the reason that it worked was because there was such an extraordinary mix. We also had musicians and artists who couldn’t make ends meet and often these very privileged middle class lads who wanted to be outdoors working two or three days a week with us, so this great hotch potch.

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. Again I think 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.

Is there an active programme of social skills development for people who come here or is that aspect literally a byproduct of being involved in the community?

To an extent there’s a very carefully planned programme. The day starts with a meeting and we set out who is doing what, which is kind of the work side of it.

Where possible we try to work one-to-one on a lot of the stuff we do, just because really you don’t know when someone is going to start talking about things or what they want to talk about. It’s about being there at that moment where you could challenge something or you could hear something or someone might suddenly want to talk about child abuse or just a whole array of things. It’s encouraging.

Do Police Officers visit?

We’ve had some 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 and the community has to be responsible for 85,000 men in prison. You can’t just shut them away, what are you going to do with them?

More recently we’ve had younger officers come for a week as part of their training and that has been really interesting actually, you get both sides you know.

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.

"I guess somewhere in there I have a belief that people are fundamentally alright."

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.

The prison don’t let you do anything, you’re not allowed even to hold a screwdriver so to be allowed some freedom is a big statement for them. One lad who has just gone through release actually said, do you know, I’m quite looking forward to actually just being able to pay a bill, and you think wow, what a thing to say.

You’ve been doing this a long time now but do you ever struggle with the type of crime they have committed?

No. I’ve never really struggled with that. I struggle with listening to their stories when it unfolds what they’ve been through and you just think that it’s so incomprehensible that anyone’s childhood could be like that. People who have had their skulls smashed in at the age of two and some of the abuse you hear about – I’ve held men when they’ve just cried because I didn’t know what else to do, that’s really hard. I haven’t struggled with their crimes as such.

Sometimes you struggle to understand the crime but actually the more you hear the story, even the knife attack that actually killed somebody, there’s two sides. It is a dreadful thing to have done and they should never have been in that position, we try quite hard to be totally non judgmental and move on.

"I’ve held men when they’ve just cried because I didn’t know what else to do, that’s really hard."

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 it’s 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.

‘Success’ is a difficult issue in many ways because we’re pushed on what we call outcomes, everyone wants outcomes that are beneficial and the MOJ [Ministry of Justice] have a very set procedure to follow to pinpoint re-offending and if you follow it to the letter, I don’t think anybody from here has reoffended so that says a lot about their own statistics as well.

You can take lot’s 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.

Do you find there is resistance to workshop ideas such as making a clay tile?

Yeah definitely, and for some people you maybe have to go with it, if it’s a really big resistance they’re just not going to do it, but normally we persuade people.

I think it would be fair to say that there aren’t that many people who are interested in planting veg when we first start but when they see a seedling grow into, say,  a cabbage and we harvest that cabbage and sell it for a few quid on the store, it’s brilliant. There’s enterprise and they see, wow, someone’s willing to pay for it. It’s quite different, often, to what they’ve been 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 actually 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.

"We’ve realised that our support goes way beyond the months that you’re here, it goes on for years really."

If you could speak to the guy who was setting this up or maybe someone coming out of university, would you have any particular advice for them from what you’ve learnt during this process?

Yes that’s a good question, you need to be pretty determined and believe in what you’re trying to do because people don’t accept this sort of thing easily. I was lucky in a way as I’d already got a bit of a track record having employed prisoners in my business. I suppose I had some credibility when I said I think I can do this.

It is hard work, it is very hard work. You’ve got to be motivated and it has to come from a certain place I think, which is why it’s hard to answer questions about why you want to do it. It does perhaps come from a deeper place. I think the journey needs to be what it is in a way. 

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 fountain pen whilst I was trying to do my pitch, he wasn’t interested at all really, and now he’s a huge supporter of it.

The same with the prison you imagine they get lot’s of initiatives, government stuff, why would they believe that this idiots 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.

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