Not bad huh? For some immigrants Tanjit Dosanjh OBE – Optometrist & Prison Opticians Trust Founder
My parents are immigrants, arriving to the UK in the mid 1970s. Their first born child, my eldest sister, was born with severe cerebral palsy and my mother is a dedicated full time carer for her. My other sister ran away from home as soon as she could. My father, already a distant and uninvolved father, became even more isolated and angry. We found ourselves estranged from our community and family in England as a result. Two months into my degree my father got sentenced to 14 years in prison.
When I went to Uni my friends had no idea about my dad being in prison and when they would tell me about watching the game at the weekend, I’d be thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to visit my dad in prison’. My experience was different to my peers because I had more pressure to succeed and few people who I could talk to about it. When I couldn’t afford to live in London I moved back to Kent and travelled 4 hours each day to attend University. I put my head down for 3 years and graduated with 1st class honours.
When I qualified I quickly learned that Optics is a crowded sector so unless you have money & connections it’s hard to get started. So I thought of something different.
Through my visits to my dad I knew a lot of prisoners were being used for meaningless activity. This doesn’t help their rehabilitation and can make prisoners, especially younger ones, think work is demoralising. I made a plan to set up an optical lab inside a prison which would lead to meaningful jobs & the learners would make prescription spectacles for the rest of the prison population. For this to work I needed to get contracts to supply optometry services into prisons. Offender healthcare commissioning was at a stage where optometry services were on “rolling agreements” that were being allowed to roll on unchecked for years. As the contracts weren’t being put out to tender I had no way to get a foot in the door.
I went all over Government meeting people but my idea wasn’t enough to move them to action. Even though I couldn’t make them act, I decided to take a risk and go for it myself – so I invested my time and money into setting up an optical lab in a prison. I could only go there 2 days per week as I had to work the rest of the time. But I managed to train some prisoners and get more of an understanding of the problems that lay ahead. I am forever grateful to those prisoners because they opened my eyes to how the prison system really works & they didn’t let me give up hope. My only regret is I never managed to support those guys in the same way that I have helped later trainees.
Eventually I realised the prison service wasn’t going to help me with my plan so I asked for grant makers help. They were reluctant because I was a one man band and it’s very risky for grant makers to give grants to individuals. Luckily I met with 2 organisations who were willing to take a risk and grant me £172,000. I used this money to set up a training centre outside of prison walls in the community and we train prisoners from there on day release.
I treated their money like it was my own. I had to make it stretch long enough for me to get the prison contracts from the NHS but I had no idea how long that would take. To save money I did whatever I could myself from fitting electrical sockets and plumbing to writing the course material. I took no salary for the first 9 months and only when I saw things going well did I start paying myself.
Once training was up and running I hired a trainer so I could focus on the next 2 big challenges: getting prisoners paid jobs in optics; and positioning myself to secure prison optometry contracts.
Most opticians I approached didn’t want to give my trainees a job. I expected this because people fear the unknown & opticians and prisoners don’t usually hang out together. Eventually I met an optician curious enough to hear me out. He asked me straight up, why was I involved in prisoner rehabilitation? So I told him about my dad and my experience with my first group of trainees. Since then we have trained 65 prisoners and he has helped me put 40+ of them into jobs in optics.
For the second challenge I got through to someone at London NHS offender health and he gave me the platform I needed to break into the NHS supply chain. They knew to progress they had to get rid of the old rolling agreements so they were using a new procurement method. This new procurement method meant I could get myself in front of the right people & put my bid forward. After London’s prison optometry contracts were secured and I had proved myself then more contracts followed. Today we’re responsible for optometry into 65 prisons. We are raising the quality of eye care in prisons, saving the NHS money & reducing re-offending.
In the 14 years my dad served in prison I got educated and set up a self sustainable course for prisoners in optics. I want to establish optics as one of the new prison industries. It will give male & female prisoners meaningful skills & a better chance of securing a job post release.