Making a better future

Optometrist Tanjit Dosanjh on the Pen Optical Trust, a charity that trains prisoners in optical retail

Pen Optical

01 The Pen Optical Trust was established in 2012, before becoming a registered charity in 2015. 

My dad became a prisoner in 2003 and the following year I enrolled to study optometry. The idea of the Pen Optical Trust was born from my trips to see him during my university years when we spoke about the training courses that were available to him.

On doing some research, I learned that in America they've been training prisoners in how to make prescription spectacles since 1989 – a number of the graduates have even gone on to become dispensing opticians and set up their own practices.

After qualifying, I spent a few years in different practice settings. By January 2012, I had come to a crossroads and was trying to decide what my next step would be. Assessing my options, I knew that if I didn’t give the idea of the Pen Optical Trust a go I would regret it. Shortly afterwards, I dropped a locuming day, secured the second-hand equipment to establish a small optical laboratory and went into Stanford Hill prison to train a small group of prisoners in optical retail every Monday.

Around 18 months into this pilot programme, I was confident it had the legs to work on a bigger scale and decided to take the leap and try to establish it as a full-time programme.

02 We were able to establish a training centre outside of the prison setting and set up the programme on a full-time basis after securing a grant from the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts.

Through the pilot programme, I met a number of interesting and influential people who, little did I know then, would help me to secure the funding that I required to build the Pen Optical Trust.

Securing the funding that we needed to set up full-time was not easy. It was definitely difficult to get people to listen before the Trust had charitable status, as it was just me with an idea. However, a turning point came when I was invited to present to the Sainsbury Family. I took six of our then trainees to London who spoke passionately about the course and the benefits that it had brought them. As a result, they offered us a £100,000 grant.

"We're helping to reduce reoffending and build safer communities at zero cost to the taxpayer"

Following that, I successfully secured grants from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Triangle Trust that combined allowed us to launch the Pen Optical Trust full-time.

The rest of our funding comes from winning contracts to provide optometry services in prisons across the country.

03 The programme is 10 weeks, and is followed by a month-long work placement in practice and professional examinations.

Currently, our trainees come to us from Stanford Hill and East Sutton Park prisons, close to where our training centre is based in Kent.

Initially, in order to attract recruits, we visited the prisons and gave a presentation on the programme. However, now that a number of trainees have successfully completed the course, details of the programme have spread by word of mouth and applications have been growing.

The application and enrolment process is quite a rigorous one. I interview every single candidate and if they are accepted they have to go through a careful risk-assessment process with prison management, to determine if they are eligible for day release.

Pen Optical Trust

Once enrolled, prisoners spend four days a week in our training centre. We have a training manager, Danielle Wright, who was previously a store manager with Vision Express, a locum trainer, Katie Nicholls, who is a dispensing optician and lecturer at ABDO College, and a lab technician, Georgina Stuart. We have created our own syllabus, which is very practical and hands on.

At the end of the course, trainees will sit the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers Level 2 Optical Support examination, which is administered by ABDO College.

Trainees are able to sit the examinations in December and June. Therefore, close to the examinations they will return to the centre for a revision day.  

04 Securing contracts to supply eye care services in prisons is vital for us to continue to operate.

Every prison in the UK has an optometrist attend once a week to offer sight tests and eye care to inmates. If they require spectacles, the prisoner will pick a pair and the practitioner will have them made up independently.

In the prisons that we have secured contracts to provide sight tests, instead of having the spectacles made up independently, our trainees are making and glazing the frames. This provides our trainees with experience, but could also enable us to become sustainable.

"Looking to the future, I would certainly like to establish training centres in two or three additional locations across the UK"

We currently have 33 prison contracts, which, using this model, allows us to become self-sufficient in the short-term. However, by securing around another 20 contracts, we could become permanently sustainable without the need for grants.

In the long-term, we don't want to rely on the public purse in order to do our work. Having our prisoner trainees make the spectacles for other prisoners allows the surplus from those contracts to be put towards funding our training programme. We're helping to reduce re-offending and build safer communities at zero cost to the taxpayer.

Looking to the future, I would certainly like to establish training centres in two or three additional locations across the UK.

05 To date, we have trained 14 prisoners, with six more currently going through the programme.

Of those who have completed the programme, seven have secured employment in an opticians. 

What we have generally found is that after helping a trainee to secure a month-long work placement, two weeks in, the employer is so pleased with their contribution that they are happy to continue the placement and pay the trainee.

In terms of demonstrating the success of the programme, one of our trainees secured a placement, and consequently employment, in a Specsavers practice. The multiple utilises a customer feedback programme called Maze. On this programme, the trainee is often talked about positively, with customers calling him polite and friendly.

If you an optometrist interested in providing sight tests in a prison setting, email [email protected]