Business Unusual - Dealing with a pandemic

Business Unusual - Dealing with a pandemic

Replicated as originally written for

It goes against every instinct we have in the charity sector to be unable to provide support for the people who rely on us. Yet with guidance from the government becoming increasingly stringent in order to battle the COVID-19 crisis, we are all adapting the way we work to ensure we can continue to do this.

Fine Cell Work is a charity which trains prisoners in high-quality, skilled, creative needlework undertaken in the long hours spent in their cells to foster hope, discipline and self-esteem.

Our staff team of 16 are split across two sites in Central London, including a workshop in Battersea from which we run our post-release programme. As the news on coronavirus developed last week, it soon became clear that we weren’t far behind our neighbours in Italy, Spain and France, and that travel to our London offices wouldn’t be viable much longer. Anticipating that lockdown of prisons across the UK would shortly follow, the Production and Programmes teams at FCW quickly came up with a plan to ensure our stitchers could continue working during this unsettling time.

Fine Cell Work is the only paid job which prisoners are able to carry out in-cell and can be a financial lifeline to our workforce. In addition to the earning potential, there are significant therapeutic benefits to the intricacy of needlework and so ensuring prisoners are able to continue this work is more important than ever.

Our priority became to make up as many kits as possible, a mammoth task normally done by our volunteers and prison workshops. Instead, we roped in staff from across the organisation, workshop volunteers and our team of prison leavers – who we refer to as apprentices - to assist with this. Apprentices set to work cutting fabric to size, measuring out lengths of wool and thread and assembling swatch cards ready to compile kits.

Every last member of the Fine Cell Work team rose to the challenge – our Directors, Fundraising, Sales and Programmes teams, expertly led by our Production team. Our fantastic apprentices offered guidance to the non-stitchers amongst the staff team… And so commenced Operation Kit-a-thon!

Each kit comprises of all the components needed to complete a Fine Cell Work product, including the pre-cut threads and wools, a piece of canvas or pre-printed linen, swatch cards and a set of printed instructions. Kits such as our Christmas decorations can contain as many as 22 different pre-cut components – one missing piece and the product is unable to be completed. Each kit can take 45 mins–1 hour to be pieced together… so this was no mean feat!

We measured, counted, cut and pieced – and over the course of two days managed to produce an incredible 664 kits. This amounts to over 1,200 products ready to be sent into prison to keep our workforce occupied. Once we had finished with the making, it was all hands on deck to assign these kits to prisons, package them up and ensure they were collected by the courier to be distributed across the country. Fine Cell Work currently engages with 340 stitchers across 31 prisons – so it was important that the kits were divided up to ensure there was work available for stitchers in every group and across all skill levels – beginner, intermediate and advanced.


It was a momentous effort for all those involved and as we temporarily closed our doors on Friday, we did so safe in the knowledge that we had done all we could to keep our stitchers engaged in purposeful activity over the weeks ahead. In a few weeks’ time, we will begin processing returned kits to ensure that we can continue paying our stitchers.

Each of our apprentices were also sent off with a selection of kits to help fill their time whilst they are unable to attend the workshop as usual. We are hosting daily check-in phonecalls and fortnightly mentoring with each of them and will continue to support them remotely whilst the workshop remains closed.

The advantage of being a prison-based charity is that we are used to dealing with the unexpected. Working in prisons can be unpredictable but our ability to adapt ways of working, think on our feet and rally together during challenging times has prepared us in a way that we never could have imagined. No matter what the coming months throw our way, our service users will remain at the heart of everything we do – we look forward to returning to “business as usual” but will settle for “business unusual” for now.


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