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Exclusive – How Tap Social is helping prison rehabilitation

Tap Social is a unique and thriving social enterprise in the heart of Oxford, combining craft beer with prison rehabilitation. 

Walking into the Market Tap, you would not have guessed that this warm and lively venue opened just two months earlier.

Located in the centre of Oxford’s Covered Market, Tap’s newest site is a constant current of tourists and locals checking out the craft beers and freshly baked goods.

Staff and customers alike stop to chat to Tess, one of the co-founders of Tap Social, as she sits down to discuss the origins, purpose and future of this thriving community hub.

Tap Social is neither just a business nor a charity, explains Tess, but a social enterprise that uses ‘criminally good beer’ to reintegrate ex-offenders back into society through employment, training and workshops.

They partner with HMP Spring Hill, training prisoners on day release and employing many afterwards in brewing, front of house and kitchen positions, as well as in their bakery.

Credit: Tap Social

The enterprise combines sisters Tess and Amy, Amy’s partner Paul, and close friend Matt’s passion for craft beer with their desire to improve the criminal justice system.

Tess had previously volunteered back home in Canada with a non-profit organisation, securing pardons for prisoners, and Amy is currently pursuing a criminology PhD at the University of Oxford.

Paul also has experience of the system, as a criminal barrister and university tutor in law.

This expertise and passion led them to found Tap in 2016, which has grown from a single brewery run by them and their friends to having 5 separate venues and running events from weddings to club nights.

Rehabilitation is at the heart of the Tap Social mission. As Tess explains, the majority of offenders will leave prison and re-enter society at some point.

She points out that most prisoners are serving shorter sentences for less serious offences, which massively uproot lives without providing any support or rehabilitation to rebuild them on release.

Without rehabilitation programs, many individuals leave prison with little or no education, limited housing availability and face huge social and economic barriers re-adjusting to society. Some are released from prison with no fixed address or potential accommodation, and some have even been let out with just tents.

Those serving longer sentences, or who were arrested at a young age, would face the issue of low credit scores which affects their ability to apply for loans, buy houses or even a phone.

Moreover, the changes of our fast-paced society in 10 or 20 years can leave them disorientated and left behind.

‘Things as simple as the introduction of charges for plastic bags in 2015 can be hugely disorientating.’

Digital illiteracy is another huge barrier to those whose sentences started before the internet was invented.

It is these immense obstacles that Tap Social attempts to overcome through training and employment for those nearing the end of their sentence.

Tess explains how they have expanded their support and adapted to ex-offenders’ needs. For those who don’t join the team permanently, they also offer employment support such as CV writing and interview practice.

They have hired nearly 50 ex-offenders into long-term positions and reached over 500 through their workshops, fairs and programs such as their artwork collaboration project with HMP Huntercombe.

The prisoner’s artwork has been used on the can designs and in one of their newer venues, the White House.

Tess is full of enthusiasm as she explains Tap’s ‘mind-blowing’ progress since its conception in 2016, especially regarding their recidivism (re-offending rate) of only 6% compared to the national average of 50%.

However, her optimistic demeanour falters slightly as our conversation veers towards life before release and what she sees as the fundamental failures of the criminal justice system.

Tess and the Tap Social team strongly believe that the government’s approach to tackling crime is flawed in many ways.

By focusing on punishment, but failing to think about what will happen to people once they are released from prison the current legislation overlooks the systemic roots of crime such as poverty, unemployment and social marginalisation and actually drives reoffending, creating unnecessary further victims.

Prison sentences don’t address these issues, she explains, ‘but often punish already at-risk individuals.’

She is particularly emphatic in her opposition to the use of short 12-month prison sentences, which merely uproot offenders from their community and support networks and can cause them to lose housing and jobs, while providing little to no rehabilitation or education.

Courts use these disruptive sentences far too often, which simply adds to the already overcrowded prison population and means the government continues to spend billions on building new super-prisons.

Instead, Tess and the Tap Social team advocate to policy-makers for community sentences, which allow offenders to remain in their current communities and continue working.

This desire for reform in both law and public opinion is evident throughout the Tap Social movement.

Printed on the side of each beer can are astonishing facts about the failures of our current criminal system. One of their bestsellers, Time Better Spent, explains that ⅓ of UK prisoners spend at least 22 hours a day locked in their cells.

By making the public more aware of this unjust and inefficient system, Tap hopes to cause significant and permanent change in society.

The meteoric rise of Tap Social has survived the nation-wide hospitality crisis and the pandemic, and they’re not slowing down now.

If you’re local to Oxford, check out one of their five sites and the many exciting events they regularly host. If not, their craft beers are available online, along with more information about rehabilitation and reform.