Putting the bad guys to work on good deeds in Bethnal Green

IT MIGHT be a sunny day, but standing around in the garden at St Peter’s Church in Bethnal Green, the cold really starts to get into your bones.

For six gardeners clad in tough outdoor gear, gloves and the tell-tale Community Payback orange waistcoats, the day is not about standing idly admiring the garden.

Instead they are notching up six-and-a-half hours of their community service sentence under the watchful eye of Probation Service project supervisor Gaby Barzilar.

He’s a trained cabinet maker but can turn his hand to anything, it seems, managing a project to replaster the church walls, design raised beds in the garden and organise a compost heap to transform leaves from the plane and beech trees that surround the churchyard into fertiliser for feeding the soil.

When offenders arrive to start their community service at the garden at St Peter’s Close, Mr Barzilar said: “The first thing I do is to instil a sense of respect in themselves and respect of others.”

He added: “Colour, religion and politics stays outside the door.

“I don’t want to know what they have done. All I’m interested in is how many hours they have and I’m interested in them as people and as adults.”

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Those on the project do between 60 and 200 hours of service for the community and have to complete the course, which has been imposed by a magistrates’ court, within the year.

The majority of them have been sent here by Thames magistrates’ court in Bow.

They all have to start work at 9am, and they breach the terms of their order if they arrive late by 15 minutes or more – too many breaches and they end up back before the court again.

But the members of the historic St Peter’s church are full of praise for the work done by people on community service.

The relationship started nine years ago, explained parochial church council member Graham Pritchard.

He said the garden had become overgrown and become a dumping ground, with broken bottles, cans, condoms and needles left there and shady characters getting up to no good.

Church members did the occasional blitz but realised they needed regular help and Mr Pritchard got in touch with the Probation Service.

Since then, he said, the transformation has been astonishing. On a bleak January day it’s like discovering a secret garden, with polyanthus and roses in bloom.

Branches have been cut back, rubbish cleared, flower beds laid out and a series of compost heaps put up.

Community service workers have also built a shed. Mr Barzilar said: “I showed people how to make a raised bed and one of them then realised that he could do carpentry.”

Other tasks they have done is planting 500 daffodils, along with spring onions, cabbages and potatoes, and helping to tend flowers that keep the church in bloom for most of the year. They even get to share some of the produce they have grown.

Mr Pritchard was also full of praise for the offenders who meticulously cleared 170 years of candle wax from the floor of the church sanctuary.

“They did not want to miss a bit. They did not want to stop for tea or anything,” he said.

Adolfo, who is in his 20s, is half way though his sentence of 160 hours.

“I’m learning everything about the garden,” he said. “When I come here I think about what I was doing wrong. I am learning to be nice. I don’t want to get into trouble again.”

His first day on the project coincided with the heavy snow, when it was impossible to clear up leaves in the garden, so offenders worked inside instead.

Adolfo said: “I think this is the best system. If you go to prison you never know what’s going to happen.”

But at this project, one thing’s for sure – the church hosts a barbecue for the community service people in the summer to thank them for putting something back.

The Probation Service and Tower Hamlets council is keen to hear from people who want to suggest projects they would like to see adopted by Community Payback.

Contact the London Probation Trust on 020 8 475 7930, ldn.cpforestgate@londonprobation.gsi.gov.uk or through local police safer neighbourhoods teams.