Dartington-based charity Landworks might be on to something.

The site hums with activity as trainees beaver away growing and tending to crops, most of which are then sold locally. There are also clusters of greenhouses, sheds and wooden buildings, the largest of which serves as an impressive cafe and dining room.

But what makes Landworks special are the trainees. Founded in 2013, it’s been described as an ‘offender rehabilitation project’ or work retraining training scheme for prisoners and those facing community sentences.

The rather lengthy description may not grab any headlines, but one visit to the site could be enough to make avid supporters of custodial sentences reconsider at least some of their views.

Getting them to visit is proving to be decidedly hard, however.

When Totnes MP Anthony Mangnall gave a speech in the House of Commons in 2020, extolling the charity’s virtues, he invited the then prisons minister Lucy Frazer to see for herself.

But despite saying she would visit the site, she never did. No government minister since has decided to break that habit, either, according to the charity.

Ministers may not show much interest in rehabilitating offenders, but recent data suggests that society at large is more prepared to embrace new approaches to this age-old problem.

In a recent survey of 5,000 people, 55 per cent of respondents said prisons should focus more on rehabilitation than punishment, while 60 per cent felt that educating prisoners and developing their skills was a good way of spending taxpayers’ money.

Whatever one’s views, there is also another deep crisis facing the penal system with overcrowding reaching critical levels. According to government figures, the prison population in England and Wales is poised to increase from the current level of about 83,680 to a staggering 106,300 prisoners by 2027.

Landworks’ founder Chris Parsons believes the answer lies in thinking out of the box, although the idea came to him by chance about 30 years ago, when he set up a landscape and construction company.

“The first guy I employed was in recovery, and that worked well. The business grew and we always kept a certain number of places for people who were struggling and on the wrong side of the law.”

Astonishingly, he did not base his scheme on an existing model or design a grand plan to rehabilitate anyone.

“It’s what I came across through meeting people and seeing their lives, and the difficulties they face when they get back into the community – that was the basis for it.”

Two-thirds of the people he employed were stonemasons and carpenters who were keen to get back to work but were experiencing the typical problems offenders face after dropping out of the system.

He became aware of the urgent need for offenders to have a secure half-way house between the criminal justice system and the outside world.

Despite initial resistance from some sectors, doors gradually opened. The Dartington Trust got behind the project and rented out two-and-a-half acres of land for them.

“One of the extraordinary things about Landworks is that we have people from every walk of life and every political persuasion who seem to be interested in this idea and that it can work,” he says.

He cites the case of a local man who walked up to him and sheepishly admitted how he had been against the project at first, not understanding why he was favouring criminals.

“Since then he has become a great fan. The people who’ve been here have actually shown their community that they can put something back, and that’s great.”

Undeniably, there will always be a hardcore section of the prison population that cannot be reintroduced into society, and experts point out that positive outcomes also depend on the nature of the offence, but research from Landworks shows what can be achieved.

According to the charity, only 5.2 per cent of trainees have gone on to re-offend compared to 37.4 per cent who have either been released directly from prison or served a community court order.

The majority have also gone on to find employment, while many are keen to stay on at Landworks in some capacity.

Sam, who was released from prison in April 2022, is one such person.

“I’d been through the system and thought once you’ve been in, that’s your life. Coming out to a place like this was a bit alien initially – it’s quite rare to see people who generally want to care about you and don’t see you as a bad guy,” he says.

Sam’s jaunty manner is in stark contrast to how he felt when he was jailed for GBH, and although he started as a trainee as recently as May 2022, he is now studying in college, spurred on by his new found passion for horticulture and regenerative farming, thanks to Landworks.

“It has completely changed my life. A few months ago I had an identity crisis. You’re looking at yourself and asking ‘who am I? I’m not this person anymore’, and it’s nice; it’s really refreshing and rewarding to be this new person.”

He is disarmingly honest on being asked what his response is to people who believe he should be punished for his crime.

“I put my hand up and admitted to my crime. I was an anxious wreck, I was depressed and felt lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon trail. If it wasn’t for this place I’d probably be back in prison because I wouldn’t have got out of that mindset. I felt like the world owed me a favour because of how my life went, but I came to the realisation that I was angry at myself.”

Trainee Cyan initially took a cursory interest in Landworks and started coming only one day a week before Christmas. That has now increased to three days.

“They’re brilliant people to be around,” he says. “I’ve really learnt quite a lot about gardening in the short period of time I’ve been here.”

Nutrition is also important to the charity, and eating together builds a bond between trainees and staff. Mike started coming to Landworks six years ago and is now a cook. “It’s quite rare that a chef can walk out the door and pick fresh herbs and vegetables. I can’t wait for the summer when we start growing berries.

“I like to think that I could be quite a senior member of staff here, helping people. I want to get as many qualifications as I can.”

There are normally 14 trainees at the site every week, and while demand is high numbers are manageable as not every offender can be admitted to Landworks, which is why the charity works closely with probation officers in risk assessment.

The future may not look bleak for Landworks, but with public service cuts and moves afoot to increase custodial sentences, Parsons is under no illusion about what needs to be done if schemes like his are to flourish.

“If we had a government that could see further than tomorrow and had a policy that was properly thought through over the long-term, it would help.

“There needs to be a debate in this country about punishment versus resettlement. Do we need to keep punishing people? Surely the moment of punishment is when your time is denied to you, whether you are sent to prison or have a community sentence.

“The rest should be about helping to rebuild lives, because I can guarantee nobody who’s attended this place set out to be a bad person; they didn’t want to harm their community.

“It’s a brave community that opens its arms and says ‘you can come back in now’. That’s partly what Landworks is trying to do.”

If Parsons’ ideas require a leap of faith, they also happen to echo Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset’s famous saying ‘I am me and my circumstance’. That might be a good starting point for everyone.