April 28, 2022

How can the coffee industry help to rehabilitate ex-offenders?


Across the world, it is sadly all too common for ex-offenders to reoffend and find themselves back in prison. In the US, over 76% of prisoners are rearrested within five years of release.

Although the issue is highly complex, it’s largely believed that a widespread lack of support systems for ex-offenders – both inside and outside of prisons – is the main barrier to reintegration.

Furthermore, many ex-offenders feel that they are not accepted by wider society – continuing the vicious cycle.

While the coffee industry might not be the first that springs to mind when we talk about integrating ex-offenders, there are some initiatives underway to support this.

Some coffee professionals have recognised the potential for the industry to assist with these reintegration efforts. I spoke to Hayley Meyer and Chris Pfeiffer to learn more.

You may also like our article on social initiatives in coffee-producing communities.

redemption coffee roasters

Opportunities in coffee roasting

Many prison systems around the world have poor rehabilitation records. One such example is the UK’s. Statistics from the Prison Reform Trust indicate that 47% of adult ex-offenders in the UK are reimprisoned within one year of release. 

Moreover, once released, ex-offenders are more likely to find it more difficult to return to work. 

However, research has shown that rehabilitative work programmes are successful in reducing reoffending rates. According to a study published in the European Journal of Criminology, work opportunities in prison can improve an individual’s employability in wider society – enabling them to reintegrate more successfully.

Although coffee roasting is not the most common rehabilitation practice in most prisons, there has been a significant amount of success with these initiatives. 

Redemption Roasters in London is the world’s first prison-based coffee roaster. The company invests in UK offenders by training them to roast coffee.

Redemption Roasters was established with the aim of reducing reoffending rates in the UK. After training young offenders to develop coffee industry skills, the company helps them to find stable jobs outside of prison.

Hayley works at Redemption Roasters. She explains how the company’s founders wanted to build a brand with a “meaningful story to tell” to drive real social impact.

“After a chance encounter with the UK’s Ministry of Justice (MoJ) at a coffee trade show in 2017, the idea for Redemption Roasters was born,” she explains. Hayley tells me how the MoJ was looking for coffee businesses to help implement barista training programmes in prisons.

“Negative stereotypes of the ‘ex-con’ create profound barriers for ex-offenders in professional settings and prevent them from fully participating in society,” she says. 

“By creating a premium coffee brand which includes ex-offenders, we hope to erase these attitudes and help lead a cultural shift towards providing second chances.”

green coffee beans

Rehabilitating ex-offenders at origin

Rehabilitation programmes in the coffee industry aren’t just limited to consuming countries, however. 

Some initiatives to rehabilitate ex-offenders through coffee production at origin have also been launched in recent years. These can also help to support areas where there is a growing generational gap in coffee production, addressing a systemic issue and getting more people interested in the sector.

One example is the Crossroads Prison and Rehab Ministry Trust in Kenya, first established in 2005. The Crossroads project aims to improve access to education and employment for local incarcerated youth.

In 2014, the trust piloted a coffee cultivation project. Two years later, the first coffee harvest took place.

Chris Pfeiffer is the co-founder and CEO of Wertkaffee GmbH, which operates the Mehrwert Kaffee brand. Mehrwert imports coffee from the Crossroads project, and its sales support the initiative directly.

“We wanted to get involved,” he tells me. “The motivation of the programme is to give people a chance, especially to those who don’t have one.

“It’s like a vicious cycle,” Chris adds. “When you are a criminal and go to prison, you can often end up reoffending once released.”

Chris’ grandfather founded the Crossroads project in Germany. He was inspired to empower underprivileged people after visiting Kenya in the 1970s. The project now operates in several countries, including Russia, Mongolia, Brazil, Kenya, and India. 

At Crossroads, ex-offenders (typically young men) get a second chance at living a full life through coffee production. They are trained by coffee farmers to help with harvesting, processing, and preparing coffee for export.

“Some of the boys who come to Crossroads are as young as 14, but can be as old as 21,” Chris tells me. “Three months before they are released from prison, they train at Crossroads for two weeks, before going back to prison to finish their sentence.”

In 2018, some 5,000 coffee seedlings were donated to Crossroads, which has trained 19 young ex-offenders . In the most recent harvest, Crossroads exported around 1,070kg of green beans – indicating the potential for larger scale success.

roasting coffee

How can rehabilitation projects bolster coffee production?

In recent years, coffee-producing communities have faced a steadily increasing number of issues. 

During harvest season, coffee farms generally require a lot of labour to support them. However, younger generations are increasingly looking for employment beyond coffee production. This leads to a generational gap, which means there is an ageing coffee farmer population in most countries, with not enough younger producers emerging to drive the sector forward.

This is further exacerbated by ever-growing costs of production, which often lead producers to abandon coffee for more profitable crops. 

Around 30 years ago, Chris tells me that producers in the area surrounding the Crossroads coffee farm had uprooted their coffee trees to shift to sugarcane farming. However, the project has helped to reinvigorate local coffee production.

“In the four years that we have imported coffee from western Kenya, we have seen two co-operative societies form,” Chris notes. “It’s good to see these results in such a short period of time, mainly thanks to the Crossroads project.” 

The success of the rehabilitation programme has also positively affected other farmers in the local area, as their coffee is exported to Germany as well.

Redemption Roasters has also reported similar positive impacts which benefit the wider communities. Hayley says that before the pandemic, Redemption mainly reached people serving sentences behind bars. However, with prison-based education suspended for the last couple of years, the focus shifted to people who were “at risk” of offending. 

“Our social impact report showed that 23% of our staff were drawn from our beneficiary groups,” Hayley explains.

“We’re glad to be encouraging people from committing offences at an earlier stage, as this practice has demonstrably high results of preventing further crimes,” adds Hayley.

She tells me about James, an ex-offender who served time at Aylesbury Young Offenders Institution.

“It was obvious from the beginning that James was meant to be in the coffee industry,” she explains. “His passion for coffee set him apart; he often took out books from the prison’s library to study before and after workshop hours.”

James eventually went on to write and illustrate a 60-page book using his newfound coffee knowledge. He was released in October 2019 and began working with Redemption shortly after. 

James then landed a full-time position at New Ground, a roastery with a similar mission to Redemption. A few months later, he became head roaster at the company.

inside a prison

What challenges do these programmes face?

Despite the success of these initiatives, there are a number of difficulties which they face. 

Navigating complex prison systems and local government bureaucracy can be arduous and overbearing. Unforeseen changes to daily prison regimens present challenges to the staff who visit and work in the facilities. 

Furthermore, every delivery and pick-up of roasted coffee or equipment must be searched before being escorted to the relevant workshop. New staff members must also undergo an intense scheme of background checks, which often take weeks or months to complete. 

“Attrition rates are high, leading to higher recruitment costs,” Hayley explains. “We work with specialised logistics companies and have spent years coming up with processes which allow us to operate facilities without wifi, mobile phones, and mechanical tools in prisons.

“This doesn’t include the time our staff spend in accounting, wholesale, and the board of directors when dealing with prison-related tasks,” she adds. “Overall, working in prisons is not easy, but it’s why our company exists.”

In Kenya, meanwhile, the Crossroads project has faced its own set of challenges – largely a lack of consistent financial support. Chris says that since 2014, proceeds from coffee sales have been the only source of income for the Crossroads project.

mehrwert kaffee

The sustainable benefits

Hayley tells me that recently, Redemption Roasters applied to become a B Corp. B Corps are companies which have been verified to meet high standards of accountability, social and environmental behaviour, and transparency. 

She says that the Redemption team has been working hard to ensure that its green coffee buying strategy also reflects the company’s mission statement.

“We identified ways in which we can make an impact in how we source our coffee, as well as providing opportunities to those who otherwise have few,” she says. 

“This means working with female producers and indigenous groups, who are often marginalised or disenfranchised in the coffee industry,” Hayley explains. “We source from lesser-known origins and regions which are difficult to access.”

In the case of the Crossroads project, farmers are paid 30% above the regular Nairobi Coffee Exchange rates. After harvesting, producers send their milling statements to Mehrwert, who then visit Nairobi to cup and evaluate the coffees.

In turn, roasters then support the producers by providing higher-quality processing equipment. Crossroads is also constructing a coffee quality lab which will enable farmers to taste their own coffees. 

“You can see the effect this has on coffee quality,” Chris tells me. “We originally produced coffee scoring 84 points, but now we’re achieving 86 points – and the number is still climbing.”

inside a prison

With continuous support from initiatives like Redemption and Crossroads, it seems that reoffending rates can decline – helping vulnerable ex-offenders to improve their quality of life.

Coffee plays a vital role in uplifting many communities, and ex-offenders can be given the chance to enjoy the success of the industry.

At the same time, coffee-producing communities benefit from the new sources of labour – bolstering the entire supply chain.

Enjoyed this? Then try our article on gender equity in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s coffee sector.

Photo credits: Redemption Roasters, Mertwehr Kaffee

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