Jennifer Byrne goes behind bars at Brixton Prison in London… For a fine four-course dinner.

They say you can’t shock a London cabbie. But I swear the driver outside my smart Soho hotel gives a distinct “Who’s the madwoman?” look when I jump into his cab and state my destination: “Brixton Prison, please.”

“That’s not the best place to go,” he says, peering over his shoulder. But I insist. Brixton Prison. I have a dinner reservation. Does he know the address?

Well, Steve has The Knowledge and he grew up in the East End so of course he does; the prison has been a dark, hulking presence in London’s south since 1820. “I do get the heebie-jeebies going near those old prisons,” he says as we near the gates. “The thought of being inside terrifies me.” As it does most of us, let’s be honest.

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But that’s what’s happening tonight. I’m going behind the walls for a dinner cooked and served by inmates – part of a bold plan to reduce reoffending rates by training prisoners for the hospitality industry.

The restaurant is called The Clink is one of a chain of four being run inside prisons in the United Kingdom (plus a café in Manchester). It opened in 2014 in what once ranked as one of the country’s most notorious jails. It’s where Mick Jagger was taken in handcuffs after his 1967 drug bust; where the murderous Kray twins waited on remand. It’s still as formidable as a fortress and the last place you’d expect to dine finely on beef tournedos and heritage tomatoes but that’s the offer. Though it comes with strings.

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The prison’s unassuming entrance belies the refined dishes prepared by inmates training for jobs in the hospitality industry at the onsite restaurant.

Just booking a table here is an obstacle course involving advance submission of ID – in the case of my husband and I, our Australian passports, photos, dates of birth – and, on the night, a security briefing of forensic detail.

“No aerosols, perfumes, aftershave or deodorants may be taken into this prison,” restaurant manager Karyn Keating recites to our group of 30 or so diners standing at the towering outer gate (there will be 55 in all but they stagger the arrivals). “No mirrors, tweezers, scissors, nail clippers or any kind of foil. No business cards, anything that has your phone number or address or photograph of a loved one…”

Some of it makes sense but no Blu-Tack or chewing gum? No lipstick or lip balm? “If they take my prison keys from me, they can make an impression,” explains Keating. No tissues? “Tissues, they can spray drugs on.” Plus, security has just been tightened: another diner has brought in something he shouldn’t, the restaurant is short-staffed, they’ve had the dogs in earlier today… It sends a ripple through the group but we meekly lock away all prohibited items and submit ourselves to a full body-search. The gates roll open and we file in.

Dinner is served in the old governor’s house in a dining room with a semicircle of banquettes and about 20 tables, a simple tiled floor, a low ceiling and brown walls hung with portraits drawn by prisoners, their subjects including Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and the rapper Tupac. The windows are sealed and barred. There’s a big coffee machine and small souvenir stand in the corner, where the waiters congregate while we take our seats. It feels quietly sophisticated, though the cutlery is plastic and the drinks are fizzy mocktails – no alcohol is permitted here.

The waiters take us through the menu with pride and it’s a fancy offering: an hors d’oeuvre followed by four choices each of a starter, main and dessert, which change with the seasons. At £40 (about $73) per person, it’s a steal but the food is not really why we’re here.

The young man at the next table explains that he’s brought his girlfriend as a birthday surprise. Another diner says her brother works in a prison – not this one but she wants to get a sense of his life. Some are just tourists looking for something different but everyone is curious and I hear conversations strike up all around the room. It’s a rare opportunity to speak directly with these men who’ve taken a wrong turn in life and are now hoping for – working towards – a second chance.

Our waiter, Sesay, a 25-year-old South Londoner with a big gold tooth, encourages us to enjoy our “muse-boosh” of pulled-pork rillettes before sharing his story. Jailed for four years for firearms offences at 17, he returned to prison seven months ago on a drug conviction. He’s due out by the end of the year, if he wears an ankle monitor. Sesay signed up for The Clink not for the salary – he doesn’t even know what he earns – but because all conversations in jail are the same and this is his chance to talk about different things, to meet people who’ll encourage him and listen to his dreams.

Recognising our accents, he enthuses about Neighbours, Home and Away and Border Security (“…though I worry if I did come to Australia, I’d do something stupid like getting busted bringing in peanuts”). He’s charming, funny and good at his job and, for all the deliciousness of the food he brings to our table, he lives on a steady diet of chicken or fish with chips. “I’m greedy, I love my food, but I go to the gym twice a day, which takes my mind off things.” He hopes to become a personal trainer – and plans never to return to jail.

For graduates of The Clink project, this is a reasonable expectation. It’s had an extraordinary impact on recidivism. While figures vary, generally fewer than one in three prisoners manages to stay out of jail in the year after release, whereas for The Clink trainees the proportion is closer to 90 per cent. Plus, each Clink venue releases about 50 prisoners a year into cooking and hospitality jobs – one even went on to compete in The Great British Bake Off – and several prisons have created The Clink Gardens, where inmates rear chickens and grow fruit and vegetables for the restaurants.

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Yet the man behind The Clink, chef and one-time prison catering manager Al Crisci, never saw it as a mere rehabilitation project. Equally important is opening up people’s minds about prisoners and championing the idea that everyone deserves a second chance. It’s an exercise of trust on many levels.

I pass on dessert reluctantly (the dark-chocolate ravioli with raspberry sabayon and raspberry and chilli sorbet looks great) so I can squeeze in a visit to the kitchen out back, hoping to meet the chefs. It’s only 8.15pm but lockdown is just 15 minutes away; the kitchen is already empty and gleamingly clean.

My eyes go straight to the long cabinet of knives on the wall – huge, sharp ones – each outlined, like shadow boards in toolsheds, so head chef trainer Simon McKinnon Braham can keep track of them. Does he have no qualms about knives being in the hands of prisoners? “How else could they work?” he says. “They put the knives on chains in most American jails but it makes it so hard to do the fiddly work, like filleting, and these guys need to know we’re trusting them. Sure, there are wild nights in the kitchen, things go wrong, but they know they’ll get kicked out of the program if they betray that trust. And that would be the worst thing for them.”

Braham came to Brixton after years of working with Jamie Oliver, including on his Fifteen initiative for the young unemployed. “I saw the ad – Teach prisoners to cook in Brixton – and thought I’d misread it at first. But it’s hugely rewarding. Tough men come in here not knowing how to chop an onion or what to do with broccoli – and look what they gave you tonight. It’s the toughest job in the jail, up to 55 covers, huge pressure. But they deliver.”

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With The Clink’s five-star rating on TripAdvisor and its ranking on the review site among London’s top 20 restaurants (even above Gordon Ramsay and Michel Roux’s Le Gavroche), you’d have to agree they do. My minestrone was thick, rich and full of flavour; the beef tournedos with bordelaise jus the perfect red-pink; and my husband’s poached chicken a triumph. But coming here is about more than having an excellent meal. You feel part of something creative and hopeful; weirdly, coming to Brixton Prison lifts the spirits.

Suddenly, Sesay appears in the kitchen, along with another waiter we’d spoken to, Jason (Brixton-born; arrested in Wales and serving six years on drug offences; he’s due out in two months and his dad has moved back to Brixton to help him with the transition; they speak every day). The two 25-year-olds – cellmates – are tense and rushed. It’s lockdown time and they’ve got to be gone. But they want to say thanks for coming, come again. Then they vanish.

It’s like the curtains have come down; we’re back in a jail. As we leave, I see lights go on in the cellblock high above our heads, just 20 metres from where we’ve enjoyed our cosy dinner – our waiters and chefs won’t be out until morning – and we walk away.

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