The ‘behind-bars’ coffee company transforming lives

The ‘behind-bars’ coffee company transforming lives
In partnership with 99designs by Vistaprint — By Design is an editorial series, created in collaboration with 99designs by Vistaprint, that celebrates small businesses across the UK and spotlights the power of a strong visual identity. In story three, we step inside Redemption Roasters, a “behind-bars” business working to reduce reoffending rates in the UK.

In a small London coffee shop, a stone’s throw from Liverpool Street station, a group of four people are huddled around an espresso machine, listening intently. “Coffee is all about confidence,” says Ryohji Hope, a barista certified by the Specialist Coffee Association, and today’s teacher. His small audience nods in agreement. 

Dressed in a beige beanie, baggy blue t-shirt and wide-leg chinos, Ryohji proceeds to talk through the four key variations of latte art – which, to the uninitiated, are the patterns made in the foam topping of an espresso. They are as follows: the rosetta (the most common), the tulip (the former’s close relation), the heart (adorable!), and the swan (the most difficult to pull off, and thus the rarest).  

Darren Russen, a 48-year-old man in a fitted grey Yankees cap, is the first of the students to step up and have a go himself. With a steady hand, he slowly begins to pour the milk, moving it side to side to create a foamy circle. As the cup fills, he finishes with a quick, straight line, making a heart. “Not bad,” he says with a grin. This time, it’s Ryohji’s turn to nod accordingly.  

Today’s session is just a refresher for Darren. He had his first taste of barista training back in 2018, when he was serving a two-year sentence for possession of a knife. That was the beginning of his association with Redemption Roasters: the world’s first “behind-bars coffee company”, and the reason he’s here today. 

“I spent 16 years in prison all together,” he explains later, now perched at one of the tables in the Redemption shop. “I grew up in Hackney – my era was the ’90s, it was a no-go part of town, not like how it is today. I grew up in a lot of crime, gang stuff… once you’re in that life, you don’t know any different.”   

“I first found out about Redemption when they came into Wormwood Scrubs prison when I was serving my sentence,” he continues. “I wasn’t into coffee, but had just found Christ and because of their name – Redemption – it attracted me. I put in an application to join the course and, from the day I met them, I’ve always been with them. They gave me a job while I was in prison, and once I got released they put me straight into work. Since I came out, I’ve stopped doing crime, I’ve stopped my drugs – everything. It’s amazing to see just how much being part of a company like this has changed my life.”

Redemption Roasters is home to numerous stories just like Darren’s. The company was launched in 2017 by university friends Max Dubiel and Ted Rosner, initially as a pure wholesale business with no real links to social justice. But after being approached by the Ministry of Justice, who inquired as to whether they’d be interested in helping with barista training in prisons, the pair put together a plan and came up with the idea for the business. 

Redemption’s mission, as it exists today, is to help prisoners successfully reintegrate into society by training them in barista and roastery skills while they complete their sentences. Upon their release, they then help them find employment: either in their own coffee shops, or with wholesale clients. 

“We saw the opportunity and, for the first time, saw the need for doing something against re-offending in this country, which is a big problem,” says Max, who is originally from Frankfurt, Germany. “We thought, ‘Rather than doing training in prisons, why don’t we actually roast in the prison and tell the story of reducing reoffending?’ About a year later, our first roastery opened in HMYOI Aylesbury.” 

Since then, Redemption has established partnerships with a number of different prisons across the country. It has a fixed training facility inside HMP The Mount as well as a number of coffee shops throughout London. “We currently have six-and-a-half shops,” says Ted, a south-Londoner. “The ‘half’ is a pop-up at King’s Road that is shutting at the end of June. But we’ll be opening one in Dulwich Village, then one more in Poplar.”     

But Redemption’s work isn’t purely confined to helping ex-inmates. They also conduct ‘outside’ training with people who have not yet been convicted of a crime, but may be deemed at risk of doing so in the future. These two categories are referred to as ‘In Custody’ and ‘In The Community’. Once someone from one of these groups completes their training, they become known as a ‘Graduate’. 

If you are working with a group of ex-offenders, and you get around 12 per cent into employment, that is a good number,” says Jonny Pilkington, who serves as Redemption’s Public Sector Engagement Manager. “But what we’re seeing [with Redemption] is actually about 20 per cent. It’s a really good number. And it probably could be more, but we’ve had the pandemic.”  

Really, though, these stats only tell a small part of the story. While education and employment are at the heart of what they do, Redemption’s work – their support – extends way beyond those core pillars. As an organisation, they perform an integral role in their graduates’ transition from prison to the outside world. This can involve helping them find housing, or securing them items to assist their reintegration: a phone, a watch, an oyster card. It can also just be a case of letting their graduates know they’re available to meet up for a chat whenever they need it. 

Samuel Urhie-Daniels, a 24-year-old Redemption graduate from Deptford, will attest to this. His first sentence came at the age of 16 and he has since spent time in a total of 15 different prisons across the country. He first came across Redemption during the final 18 months of his last sentence, which was for drug dealing, and promptly signed up for the training course. A quick learner, he graduated with a double distinction and became a mentor, working full-time while he was still inside prison to help train fellow inmates. 

“The whole purpose of Redemption is to help,” he says, speaking in rapid bursts over the sound of drilling from the next-door premises. “Prison is supposed to be for rehabilitation, but it’s never like that. You’re a human being, so when you actually see someone caring about your wellbeing, caring about what you want to do with your future, you’re going to take to them eventually. Especially for a person like me…  no one has ever tried to help me. So when I thought about it, it was like, ‘I can meet people, I can learn a trade – how can I not be happy?’” 

When he left prison, Sam was in constant contact with Lauren Tennent, Redemption’s Employment Support and Partnerships Manager. “Even if it was just a, ‘Hello, how are you?’, they were there,” he remembers. “As much as they are helping you to find a job, they are your friends as well. I still can call them and ask for advice.” 

Today, Sam works as a chef in one of the Redemption shop kitchens. While he is comfortable cooking – “I live alone, so I had to force myself to learn” – he says the work is challenging him in new ways. However, he’s relishing the opportunity to get stuck into something new, and remains enormously grateful to Redemption for allowing him the opportunity. 

“I was a drug dealer,” he says. “I’m not trying to [say]I was some Pablo Escobar, because I wasn’t. But I’m trying to say that I never, ever thought about changing my life for nothing. If they can help me turn my life around, especially after the things I’ve done, I think they can change anyone’s life. They’re going to give you a different avenue to get out of whatever you’re doing. They’re not here to judge you, they’re not here to tell you you’re living like this, or that. They care about you.”  

Since their inception, Redemption has made a tangible impact on the lives of Sam, Darren and so many more, all while growing as a successful business. For Max and Ted, profit and purpose are entangled: in their view, one doesn’t exist without the other. 

“I don’t really see the conflict,” says Ted. “I think the last 30, 40 years, corporations have been set up against society and now those two things are seen as the antithesis of each other. But actually, that shouldn’t be the case. It’s only corporate malfeasance that has set them against each other.”

Despite Redemption’s success, there remains work to be done. England, Scotland and Wales have the highest imprisonment rates in Western Europe. According to Redemption’s 2020 Social Impact Report, the UK prison population stands at 79,453, which is 97 per cent of the usable operational capacity. According to the Ministry of Justice, engagement with education can significantly reduce reoffending rates (34 per cent for prison learners, as opposed to 43 per cent for those who do not engage in any form of learning activity). However, just two in five prisons received a positive rating from inspectors for purposeful activity during a review in 2018

One way Redemption hopes to do more to combat these issues is through the Redemption Coffee School. The scheme, which is currently only being used for internal training, is an opportunity to offer more extensive training, improving standards and further consolidating the work they do. By opening it up to those who belong to the ‘In The Community’ category, they can begin reaching even more people, too.

With support from from 99designs by Vistaprint, there’s now a platform to develop it as its own entity within the main Redemption brand. In many ways, the 99 Days Of Design project, which sees that same number of small businesses awarded financial support and design services to help them kick-start a new chapter, is the perfect match for Redemption, given it’s focus on uplifting. The Redemption Coffee School will continue where they left off. 

“At the heart of what we do is education,” says Max. “Whether it’s education in custody, in the community, or in our retail shops. We’ve always had education in each of these departments, but never brought it together. The idea of a coffee school is that we have one single entity dedicated to all the above.”

As for the visual identity of the Coffee School – which Ted describes as “crucial, absolutely foundational” –  the designer, who goes by the name RockPort, created a brand extension by adapting the current Redemption logo. It speaks to the importance of understanding brand architecture when launching sub-brands. 

Design by RockPort on 99Designs by Vistaprint.

All of this will mark the next stage of the journey. In the meantime, though, the company will continue to do what it has done since its launch. With the country reopening, and coffee shops filling up once again, graduates just like Darren and Sam are back at work. For the former, now a key member of his local church (HTB in South Kensington) and currently writing a book about his life, the impact Redemption has had on him is immeasurable. 

“From my point of view, spending all my life in crime and not knowing any different, meeting a company like Redemption has been amazing,” he says. “They’ve supported me, showed me that I can change, given me confidence. People think they can’t help prisoners, but Redemption did exactly that. They lifted me up. They made me feel special. The support I get from them is overwhelming. It’s given me a lot of hope.”  

By Design is an editorial series created with 99designs by Vistaprint, in which all participating businesses receive a design makeover, as well as a financial grant to help them embark on their next chapter. Read more stories from the series here.

Take a look at the other 99 small business design makeovers on 99 Days Of Design.

The new Redemption Roasters logo was created by Rockport on 99designs by Vistaprint.

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