Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Chris Parsons on Landworks, imagination and moving beyond prison

Close to where I live is a project called Landworks. Landworks describes itself as “an independent charity providing a supported route back into employment and community for those in prison or at risk of going to prison”.  I often walk my dog past it, and from the road you can see their polytunnels, a beautiful cob wall with roundwood pole roof, their vegetable beds, and many of the things they make are for sale in their beautiful roadside shop. Landworks began in 2013, and over that time 60 men and 4 women have spent up to 9 months there, learning new skills and taking part in their programme.

In our last post here, Robert Macfarlane suggested that “in some ways imagination is a function of privilege”.  So what are the links between trauma, anxiety, poverty and the imagination? What does prison do to the imagination?  How might cultivating the imagination play a role in rehabilitating people in prison?  What might more imaginative approaches to prison look like, approaches which are land-based, practical and creative?  I popped along to Landworks to chat to Chris Parsons who started Landworks 5 years ago, and who still runs it.  I started by asking him to give me an introduction to Landworks and what it does.

“Really it’s quite simple I suppose.  Fundamentally we’re trying to allow people to get back into community and employment.  Men, and women, who have been in prison, or are in the criminal justice system.  The ethos I suppose, really, as much as anything it’s about community.  It is about forming good individual relationships here.  That’s often something that hasn’t happened in people’s lives, or if it has, the prison system may well have crushed that to a certain extent.

But we do this through a number of means.  We use market gardening, wood working, pottery, charcoal production, compost production, as our work structure – the framework of the day in which weave softer skills, social skills.  We cook every day and eat communally together.  Again, that’s something that doesn’t happen in the prison.  You tend to pick up your tray of food and take it back to your prison cell and eat on your own.  Rarely will you eat together.  And actually for a lot of people who come out from the community, their home lives don’t allow them to eat together.  That’s a real keystone of the day.

As I said before, building individual relationships, or I suppose, good trusting relations…  Gaining trust is very important.  It takes someone up to 2 months here, maybe sometimes a bit longer, to build a trusting relationship.  Once you’ve got that, then change can happen.  Once someone believes that there is the possibility of change, then you can work together and encourage them to move forward.

There is a Theory of Change that exists here.  Again, it’s quite simple.  It is broadly built around trust, and someone believing in you.  And as I mentioned earlier, before starting Landworks I wasn’t sure about hope and the term ‘hope’.  I’d muddled it up in some sort of religious context I think.  Maybe I rather arrogantly didn’t think that hope was in my life, I suppose, I don’t know.

But having seen people who are probably at their lowest points in their life and struggling to even think about moving forward, you do need a sense of hope, and you do need some belief.  You need someone to believe in you.  You do need hope that the future could be better.  I haven’t met anyone here yet who I haven’t liked, or found something to like in them, and haven’t met anyone who’s taken part in this who doesn’t want to make their life, or other lives, better.  I think they’re often held back.

We very much encourage people to form a non-criminal identity here, and to have imagination to do that.  To be allowed to have the freedom to think about that I think is quite unusual.  Certainly it doesn’t happen in the prison system where each day is the same, there’s a repetitive regime there.  You’re constantly told that you’re criminal, that you’ll be forever thought of as being criminal.  So to come to a place like Landworks where we actually encourage you to explore the future, the very basic point there may even be a future for you, is something.

What’s your background?  What led you to doing this?  To start?

I thought I was going to be a farmer when I left school.  I was born in Aberdeen, and I worked my way south working on farms, in agriculture, until about the age of 25 when I decided I didn’t think there was a future in farming for me.  So I came to a college near Newton Abbot called Seale-Hayne which is still there, but not an agricultural college.  They did a management course there for a year which I did, and I started up a landscaping company near Totnes.

The first lad I properly employed actually was an ex-heroin addict who had an alcohol problem – probably not your ideal employee really, but it worked well for him.  An outdoor life was great, and that worked.  He stayed with us for about 6 or 7 years and went through rehab a couple of times.  As the business grew we took on people who were great stone wallers, or great carpenters.  Others with great imagination for doing design and goodness knows what, but always people who had perhaps got on the wrong side of the law, some drugs issues, alcohol problems.

That built up over the years so we ended up employing about 14 people, and always 2 or 3 of them would have been having difficulties, possibly more.  Then I started taking men from Channings Wood on the day of release.  Someone helped me sponsor the first person to come through on that system.  So literally on the day of release we would meet a young lad who was coming out, and he would then join what was rather an odd band of I suppose middle class people working away in South Devon.

I think some of these guys must have been absolutely terrified in those first few days, because they had no idea what was going on!  Used to urban Birmingham, urban criminal background, and then to find themselves in the middle of beautiful South Devon with people talking all sorts of things.

But it worked.  I think the reason why it worked is because there was a mix.  They were able to believe that they could be part of something again.  I started to realise then that was quite key.  Very simple, but it really was key.  Almost on the very first day it happened.  The very first day, the very first man from Channings Wood came to work with us, we sat down to have a break at about 10-10.30 and suddenly there were two camps.

There was me and Carl having our sandwiches, and everyone had moved to the right to have their sandwiches.  I thought, “Christ, this is not working at all well.  This is a terrible mistake I’ve made”, and poor Carl thought he was going to beaten up.  I think he was terrified.  Then by lunchtime, the two sides had moved together, and by the end of the day, jokes and stories were being swopped.  I think that probably was the basis of all of this actually.  You’ve just seen it happen.  And Carl then started to believe he could do stuff.

I suppose 2 or 3 years we kept taking people at the point of release.  Some lads were reasonably skilled and others just weren’t, but it struck me it wasn’t about the practical skills.  We could sort that out.  It was actually really social skills, or what prison had done to them, becoming institutionalised, dealing with authority, dealing with a bank.  There were so many hurdles put in people’s way.

So set up a bank account, how can you evidence who you are? You’ve left prison.  How can you prove who you are?  You don’t have any ID.  I started to think that – although I think what we were doing was good, and it was certainly helping people on the way – there needed to be more.  You had to have a halfway house.  There had to be something between prison, and the real world.  To expect someone to come through the gate at prison and just walk out and get a job, was absolutely impossible.

So that was really the basis of thinking about Landworks, and the basic idea that if people mix together, it’s probably going to be alright.  So we do that a lot here.  We invite people to come to have lunch with us and people from all walks of life come here.  We’ve had High Court judges, we’ve had people who are just interested, people who want to come and cook with us.  There’s a lot of story swapping about lives going on.  People are always interested.

People are hugely interested in a prisoner’s life.  I’m terrified slightly of the voyeurism of that.  We work quite hard to not have that.  We all wear the same shirt, or predominantly we all wear the same shirt.  The idea behind that is they don’t know if I’m the prisoner, or the guy sitting next to you is the project manager, and so it doesn’t matter.  It works to an extent; I think it does help.  But again it’s coming back to that mix.

To be feeling accepted, to imagine that you can be somebody else.  That you can get back into the community that you’ve hurt.  And people talk a lot about this.  When lads first come here, they’ll say, “I didn’t really do it.” Or, “I dealt a load of drugs.  It was very lucrative.  I’m not changing my ways.”  Or, “I was set up by the cops.”  They’ll give you a sugar-coated version of their crime, that they were never quite involved with.  Then as time moves on, you start to get to well actually admitting, and they want to admit that they did wrong.

It’s at that point that things can change, and it’s around that point that trust has built enough that they feel able to say, “Look, I really fucked up here.  I got in a right state.  I was in a terrible mess.”  And if anything, prison may have lifted them out of a dreadful situation.  We, as a society, let people down because prison does take people out of a dreadful situation.  It very often is the last safety net.  But we lift them out of that situation and just put them in a place where they’re going to be for 3 or 4 years, and now do nothing, or pitifully very little, to help them.  It’s terrible wasted opportunity.

When people come here, or when people have ended up in prison, how would you evaluate the state of health of their imagination at that point?  I mean obviously it’s not going to be a scientific data driven thing, but what do you feel?

That’s an interesting question.  Looking back, I would say that – this isn’t imagination yet – but I think actually 100% of people who’ve arrived here have had some sort of mental health issue.  Varying degrees, but whether it’s from drug use, or childhood, or a mixture of everything.

Just going through prison causes tremendous shock, and a lot of people actually have symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress just from the experience of the criminal justice system.  You arrive here in that state.  Pretty broken really.  And you may not have a lot of support.  It’s unlikely you’ve come from a very supportive background in the first place, where you’ve been encouraged to imagine that life could be different, or even had someone behind you that’s going to ignite your imagination and let things fly a little bit.  That probably hasn’t happened.

Since school.

Since school, yeah.  And you will have learnt a lot of techniques to protect yourself.  Probably wearing an emotional armour that takes a long time to come off.  People’s imaginations have been squashed through that time in prison.  And actually it’s not just prison.  In the community we see people who, time and time again, they get into small amount of trouble, slightly bigger amount of trouble, and they’re pushing against the system all the time.  And the system’s handing out sentences to them, society is handing out sentences to them, but they become a sub-class – I suppose is one way of looking at terming it – who believe that they cannot play a part in what we are all doing.

It seems to me that as a society we’re very happy to say, “I don’t really want to think about you lot.  Let’s put you over there and class you as either ‘other’ or class you as ‘prisoner’, or ‘criminal’.  We don’t have to consider you.”  By doing that, the whole thing becomes terribly black and white.  We don’t look at the individual in there.

To all the people that have been here, that have come with many different issues – very many common issues – but you can never say, “Look here’s a prescriptive resettlement or rehabilitation package” because everyone’s needs are so different.  That possibly ties into imagination and perhaps at what level they’re at, or what stage they’re at in either starting to imagine a different life, or have hope in that life might be able to be a reality.

It reminds me of someone I interviewed the other week called Sally Weintrobe, who’s a psychoanalyst.  She talked about that we live in a culture of ‘uncare’.  That that’s one of the key things that is squashing people’s imagination.  That actually – we saw with Windrush, we see with all the stuff coming out – there is this increasing sense that the people who are designing the world around us really don’t care very much.

Yeah, yeah.

It feels like the people you’re talking about, that has been their experience, since they were very little, of uncare.

I think so.  They’ve been uncared for.  We’re often, towards the end of someone’s time here, they often want to say thank you.  But a lot of it is around because you cared.  Someone cared for me.  That is very significant to them.  Which is interesting; something I feel very fortunate in my childhood and I think I did feel cared for and was able to go on and do other things.  To try and understand that is difficult.  I do take that point actually, that we aren’t a very caring society.

So when people arrive here with their imagination shrunk, as it were, what for you have – over the time of doing this – seemed to you the best ways to get that working again?

I suppose allowing people to take part in things has been a big thing.  And it’s very often very small things.  So for someone to be allowed to use a screwdriver, or standing knife, certainly if they’re coming out on day release from prison, is a huge thing.

I suppose you’re saying, “Look, I trust you.  This is going to be alright.”  That then allows them to take part in things.  Then when they feel they can take part in something, then they feel perhaps they might come up with an idea, “I’d like to try and build a bit of cob.”  That’s quite a good example.  And that starts an imagination.  Work in the art department has been tremendous.  It’s allowed people to express themselves perhaps in a very different way.  Perhaps for the first time ever.  I think that allows imagination to start.

Very often they’ll go, “I can’t do this.  I’m not interested.  I can’t do it.”  And then a few hours later, something will be emerging.  That’s very exciting when that happens.  Listening to bits of chat.  It’s quite hard because we see it every day so I imagine if you could jump six months to see how someone had progressed here, I think that would be interesting to do.

And presumably working outdoors and working with plants?  And feeling part of nature, and cooking, all of those things?

Very much.  Cooking for a group of people and receiving some thanks is a very big thing for people who’ve never done that before.  Interesting about growing plants.  It’s fair to say I think that I don’t think many people have arrived here and thought, “Ooh, I’m going to plant some cabbages”!  So it’s taken a bit to enthuse them to do that.

Then they harvest the cabbage; then we put it on the stall and we sell it for a quid or whatever.  At that point, people go, “Alright.  This is quite interesting.”  Some enterprise there which I quite like.  And often it’s the drug dealers … they’re often very good at numbers.  They are quite entrepreneurial, but in a really…  I mean actually dealing drugs isn’t very difficult.  If you’re very good at it, you don’t get caught.  That’s the clever bit, but those who do it, it’s so easy.

They literally making £300, £400 a day for a few hours working.  You could jump on a train and go to Liverpool and do a package for someone for £300, or more.  But it’s that sense of enterprise that actually ignites something for them.  I quite like it because it’s a fairly wholesome thing isn’t it?  You grow it from your seed, and we sell a little end product.  Even the charcoal making, which is quite a magical process really.  People at the end of it are going, “Oh wow.  So this is what you put on your barbeque.”  And you’re, “Yeah, yeah, great.”  And we’ve made it from offcuts from wood from the workshop.  All of this does fire imagination.

Addicts…  For instance, making this table, a heroin addict very often will spend hours just working a piece of wood down.  Almost if you let them go, probably sand the whole thing down to nothing!  But they seem to derive a great deal of satisfaction from this.  I haven’t quite worked out why that is.  But heroin addicts in particular.  And yet again, I think they allow themselves to start to think, “Well, I can do something.”  That’s kind of imagination I think.

A lot of the research around that thing of when your hippocampus is shrunk, or damaged, that you lose that ability to imagine the future.  And it feels like you have a process that people come into it at a point where the future feels fairly hopeless, or even if they can look at that, to a point where they’re able to be up and looking forward and making some plans?  Would that be fair?

No, very fair I think.  And sometimes the imagination goes wild, and they’re suddenly thinking, “Right, well I can be an astronaut.  Own a mansion in Totnes or something.”  But, yeah, you are right.  It takes somewhere between 6 and 9 months I think, really, for this to work, of quite intensive interaction.

We then get to the stage actually then you have to move people on to the next stage, which is the real world, and that can be quite hard going.  But we have a tapering support here.  You can be in contact – people have been in contact now for five years.  Periodically phone up, or I’ll send a text, just checking in, seeing how we are.  In those early days after they’ve left here, well they check in quite a lot, and slowly it’s less, until it’s just once every so often.  But that is very, very important.

We have one lad who turns up – I didn’t realise this – I was working here one Saturday afternoon doing some writing and I needed to get a bit of fresh air.  I went down to the field gate and there’s a car outside.  I could see the occupants and they’re waving at me.  I had a look and it was a lad called Tommy and his wife.  He said they come out on Saturdays and Sundays occasionally just so Tommy can check it’s still here.  I was amazed.


It was a really lovely thing.  I thought well how lovely for him as well.  He needs that stability.  He just wants to check we’re here.  This was a good place for him, out of all the shit he’s been through, you know.

So you create a space as well where people feel safe and secure while they’re here.  Are there any key ingredients to doing that?

It’s very non-judgemental.  It’s been described as a safe place to be vulnerable, which is about right actually.  To allow yourself to be vulnerable is quite a rare experience.  Certainly in the prison system.  It’s quite a tranquil place.  We’ve probably worked quite hard at it really.  Perhaps almost sub-consciously.  I mean that belief that you’re doing the right thing, but you don’t know quite how or why you’re doing it, you’re just doing it.  That’s very important.

That comes back from your own life experiences.  I rely very heavily on that.  Certainly in the early days, I just thought I was doing the right thing, so I thought getting people to sit down and eat Schumacher College soup was a really good thing to do.  In fact I don’t know how many of them really liked it, but it worked.  It set the idea that we were going to eat together.  When we first started we had a little picnic table outside, and we used to all cram round it.

Schumacher were lovely to us, and to help out, would let us have a bit of their soup and would make wonderful salads.  We had a carrot and strawberry salad one day which was just too much for these guys!

One of the questions I’ve asked everybody is, if you had been elected Prime Minister in the last election, and you’d run on a platform of ‘Make Britain Imaginative Again’, so you had thought, actually a big problem we have here is that our imagination is in shreds at time when it needs to be really, really firing on all cylinders, what might you do in your first 100 days in office?

My inclination would be to go straight to the schools, education I think.  I would sort something out there.  I don’t think my own school in Aberdeen allowed you to have much of an imagination.  That’s something I’ve regretted.  I was quite fortunate that it didn’t totally influence my life actually.  That’s what I would do.

I would look at prison in a very different way.  I would stop the Daily Mail punishment and the idea that people need to be punished.  We could turn it that people there could be seen as a resource and we should look at the way we feel we have to have punishment in a very different way.  Many of the people who are in prison just simply should not be there.  It’s a complete waste of time.  But I think it’s in childhood where imagination should be allowed to spark and fire, and flourish.  If you have it then, I think you have it into adult life.  I think certain things do crush it.


The crushing?  Well I see it in the criminal justice system a lot.  We seem to almost pick on people who are struggling to make ends meet and live in difficult situations, and we somehow blame them for it.  That just seems to be increasing at the moment and I cannot understand it.  I find that quite difficult.  That it’s always their fault; they’ve been given a chance, they didn’t take it.  I suppose conservative values in a way that they should have…  I think to be given one chance, it’s wrong.  People need more than…  You need chances.  You need people to believe in you.  And you do fail.  We all fail.  And that should be more acceptable.

What you’ve created here is something that could be a template for how most people’s prison experiences could be?

I think so, yes.

In an ideal richly imaginative future, we could imagine prison as being less like our current idea.  In America there’s this whole extraordinary – and here increasingly – prison abolition movement, which is saying, “We just need to do away with the whole idea of prison because it’s deeply abusive and traumatising for people who are already abused and traumatised”, and why send people who are convicted of sex abuse to a place which is actually the biggest institutional sex abuser in the country or whatever.  What’s your sense of the mix of – I mean obviously there are people like Ian Brady – what would the mix look like of custodial, something like this?  If you were the prisons minister and you could create a 20 year plan?

I think you’re right.  Many people could come here.  Many people who come here on placement will talk about there’s probably 20% to 30% of people who are dangerous, and need intensive supervision, for want of a better word, I suppose, within prisons, where a custodial sentence and support would seem appropriate.

I don’t really have enough experience of that actually.  But there are people clearly – Category A’s and AA’s – who really are very troubled individuals.  So we accept there’s a percentage there.  If I was prisons minister, for some people I think a custodial sentence probably is correct if it’s going to change or support change in someone’s life, but it doesn’t have to be to be locked away.  By locking people up over a period of years, we smash their families to pieces.  We could do other things.

It could be weekend custodial.  People could hold down jobs during the week and keep family together.  Would have a certain amount of time where perhaps they did, I don’t know, it could be a whole series of thinking skills, could be lots of things going on.  People with drug addiction should not be incarcerated.  They should be supported.

People clearly with severe mental health issues should not be incarcerated in our prisons.  We should have help for them.  There are situations where people have fallen so far down that prison is the last safety net for them, and that is often the case actually.  In my experience most judges actually would prefer to do rehabilitation work.  They’re very limited to what they can do.  Policy dictates that they send people down.  It is changing slightly with more communal sentences, but there’s very little in the community to support anyone.

If you were given 200 hours and some rehabilitation activity requirements to help with your drug addiction, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to be able to get into rehab.  There just is not that facility there.  So I would look at that.  It’s a bigger picture.  It’s changing our thinking.  It’s changing our thinking that prisoners should be just classed as offenders, end of.  They have to be seen on a more individual basis.

I’m pretty sure I would be inclined to legalise all drugs.  I do change my mind on this quite a lot.  I’ve very little sympathy for dealers.  I’ve seen them trash people’s lives.  There’s two or three in Totnes and I simply cannot understand how this all occurs really.  But if you take the money out of drugs, then there are no dealers and the criminality would stop.  You’d probably empty the prisons, because 85%, or thereabouts, are drug related.  But then would we all be off our faces?  I don’t know.  I don’t know what the answer is really.

You mentioned before that your reoffending rate.  It would be really interesting just to get that.

So that is about 4% at the moment.  Statistically that’s very low.  It could be anything from 47% and 60% and I think for youth offending it’s actually much higher.  It’s probably nearer to 70% to 80%.  Same people going round the system really.  There has been a lot of intervention aimed at what they call the revolving door situation.  I quite like the question what would you do, because it’s really quite a big problem.  But if imagination could start fundamentally to allow people to look at situations in a different way, I think that would be a great benefit to us all.



  1. Kitty
    June 11, 2018

    Thanks Chris for this work of re-integration, acceptance and building a community with these vulnerable persons.
    I work as volunteer since 2008 in three French prisons to visit the Dutch prisoners and others, who cannot speak French. (Prisoners from Denmark Poland, UK etc.)
    Main task is to imagine together with them another future, maybe leaving even the circles were they live now to escape that addiction of fast money. My main question is always why do need so much money, to buy fancy sneakers, motorbikes? Impress your friends? Is there another future possible, what could you do? I make possible scenarios with them to escape the vicious circle. Making “ business “plans together to sell fresh milk in their home country, or start a company to make music for children, or buy second hand furniture that they could up cycle, start a permaculture garden etc.
    I totally agree with you that the current prison system is worthless, especially in France, where they have prisoners who are addicted to alcohol, drugs or mental illness together with small “ criminals” who did steal a jean.
    No work, discrimination, even racism against foreigners, “ free access to drugs, etc.
    Sometimes we win, sometimes we loose. But when after 8 years asking for a garden project within the compound of a jail, a garden is realized with a bee hive, I feel very happy!
    Keep up the good work, Chris!

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