For the first time, three prisoners at Christchurch Women’s Prison are learning the coffee trade and will graduate this week as trained baristas.

”Those of us who are coffee drinkers appreciate the skill that goes in to a good coffee,” says Wayne McKnight, Prison Director Christchurch Women’s Prison.

Research shows a strong correlation between employment and maintaining a crime free life. With many of the women in prison mothers, being able to find employment that enables them to balance work and family life provides an added challenge.

“It is important that the women have the opportunity to learn skills for jobs that allow them to potentially work part time or school hours, especially if they have a young family,” says Wayne.

“Being a good barista will provide the graduates with the opportunity for employment in cafes across the country, in a role that can potentially offer flexibility and further training opportunities.”

The ten week course was made possible through the donation of a coffee machine by the Zonta group in Ashburton and is being run under the tutelage of new prison volunteer, Vanessa Clements of Coffee Traders Café.

Through the course, the women have achieved unit standards in preparing and presenting espresso beverages for service and demonstrating knowledge of coffee origin and production.

“None of the women have had any previous experience making coffee or learning about coffee production and preparation,” says Vanessa.

“I am very impressed with the information they’ve retained each week. They have shown huge interest in learning the barista trade and are engaging well in class.”

“They also show a lot of respect towards each other in terms of each other’s learning capabilities, which is really nice to have in the classroom.”

In her early 30’s, Melissa* is one of the first graduates of the barista course.

She says she has really enjoyed the training and her coffee is now ‘pretty good’. It took a few weeks of training to develop her palate for coffee, but now the women can all taste the different flavours of coffee and know what it takes to make a great coffee.

“Vanessa helps us learn everything,” she says, “she has been an amazing teacher.”

What makes a great coffee? “The trick is to not push too hard, and put love into it,” Melissa says.

Melissa is looking at release in early 2017 and hoping to gain employment in a café in Canterbury.

“We look to offer training in areas where it is likely that there will be employment for prisoners on release,” says Wayne. "The aim is to provide real, transferable skills in different industries, to help the women find something they are passionate about doing and which will help them to support their families.

Vanessa, a café owner and experienced barista herself, says she volunteered to take the course after feeling there was something missing in her life.

“I realised after some time that I wanted to give back and help others in the same way that people throughout my life have supported me to achieve my goals,” she says.

The next step was to contact Corrections about volunteering. “I know someone who has been through the system and successfully turned their life around. I have seen and heard about the benefits of a positive influence for an offender. By believing in them, and that they are capable of change, they can gain the confidence to go for a job they’re interested in when they’re released. It’s wonderful to be a part of that journey.”

Vanessa encourages others to think about what they can offer people who are looking for a new start. She strongly believes in the value of what she is teaching the women.

“I know from experience that I am passing on a skill that has a very broad range of employment options. Coffee is made in so many establishments whether it be a café, restaurant, bakery, hotel or petrol station. There are a lot of potential job opportunities once released.”

She says a criminal history would not be a deterrent to her as an employer.  “When I’m hiring staff I’m looking for anybody with a great attitude, enthusiasm, friendly to all customers, and a willingness to learn and work hard.”

The next course at the prison will begin next year.

”All we need now is café owners like Vanessa, who can see past a person’s offending history and see a keen and able future employee,” says Wayne.

A similar training programme has been running at Arohata Prison for around a year.

* Offender’s real name has been withheld to protect her victims and support her rehabilitation and reintegration.