My father went to prison for a serious criminal offence. A year later I went to university to become an optometrist. Throughout university I visited him & this sparked an interest in prisons.
Tanjit Dosanjh - CEO and Founder of The Prison Opticians Trust & JustSpecs
Tanjit Dosanjh is an Optometrist. In 2003, his father commenced a long prison sentence for a serious criminal offence. He visited his father regularly and quickly observed the lack of decent vocational training available to offenders. Tanjit completed his optometry degree in 2008. He was encouraged by news of an optical programme in California prisons where one optical lab in 1989 had grown to five labs, manufacturing over 400,000 spectacles for state health insurance companies. Several offenders have, since leaving prison, set up their own optical businesses and some have done further education to become qualified opticians.
Inspired, Tanjit set out to turn his vision into reality. In 2010, he approached the prison service to establish an optical lab in prison that could manufacture spectacles at below market rates and had the capacity to service the demands of the entire population. Frustratingly, even though he was supported by the prison service, Tanjit could not make any headway as commissioning arrangements for optical services were contracted out by other departments. Undaunted, Tanjit self-funded an optical lab in Standford Hill prison and gave up two days a week of his time to train a group of prisoners in optical skills. The pilot project became known as Liberty Needs Glasses. By the end of 2014, Tanjit could no longer continue without funding. Nonetheless, the pilot had proven that offenders could respond to training and gave him the confidence to apply to independent grant makers for full funding.
By 2015, Tanjit had secured start-up funding to finance an optical training lab in Maidstone. The grants totaling over £272,000 came from three charities: The Monument Trust, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Triangle Trust. Simultaneously, he obtained charity commission approval to set up the Trust, formerly known as Pen Optical, with six trustees experienced in the world of optics and offender rehabilitation.
We now operate as The Prison Opticians Trust - Providing eyecare services to UK Prisons. We are now the largest provider of optometry services into prisons in England and Wales. We have a team of 16 Optometrists, A lab Manager, Lab Deputy, Training Manager and Assistant General Manager, plus our regular intake of trainees studying the training course and helping with day to day tasks.
JustSpecs has been brought to you to not only provide quality eyewear with a difference, but to raise awareness of our groundbreaking work and to continue to reduce re-offending by providing prisoners on day release with a second chance.
From humble beginnings to national reach and support
I graduated from City Univerisity & qualified as an optometrist. I was keen to do something with my new skills beyond just testing eyes.
I read prisoners in California were making prescription spectacles and this had been going on since 1989 with some amazing stories from ex-prisoners who had now become opticians.
I asked the Ministry of Justice to help me set up an optical lab to train prisoners in spectacle making which would help reduce re-offending. These prisoners/training spectacle makers could make the spectacles for all other English prisoners therefore this training project would be financially self sustainable. The MoJ were unable to help me with this project but wished me good luck.
I used my savings to start a training lab in a local prison. I bought 2nd hand lab equipment, gave up 2 days per week of my time and started training a group of prisoners in optics. I got to know these prisoners really well and I learned that some of them would not be in prison if they had had the same educational opportunities as myself.
Rightly or wrongly prisoners do not get the same job opportunities as other people. This makes it harder for them to live a normal life & tempts them back into crime.
Learning about this problem from the prisoners themselves gave me a sense that I should carry on with my project despite the lack of funding & support from government.
My project was noticed by the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trust and they made a grant of £100,000 to help me set the project up properly. I did not draw the grant down immediately as I needed more funding to do it properly.
I applied to The Paul Hamlyn Foundation for a grant but they turned me down. I had just had my first child and I was ready to throw in the towel but I thought I’d give it one last try so I wrote back to PHF and asked them to look again at my project. They agreed to meet with me and I explained the project in depth which led to a grant of £72,000.
I was awarded contracts by Care UK to supply prison opticians services into 3 London Prisons.
Instead of being inside a prison we set ourselves up in a town centre so we could train prisoners on day release. This meant we could help prisoners re-integrate back into society & would not be affected by prison politics.
We developed a great deal of material both practical and theory based to train prisoners in these skills and then we started training our first group of 6 prisoners in September 2015.
I met a local optician and persuaded him to give some of my trainees an interview and he took a chance & employed 2 of them.
We were awarded contracts from offender healthcare companies which meant there was a steady stream of work coming into the lab for training prisoners and helped the long term sustainability of the project.
Training prisoners on day release continues and we start winning more and more prison eye care contracts.
Since Sept 2015 more than 50 prisoners trained and 70% secured jobs upon release.
Spectacles for prisoners are now made by prisoners wherever we hold the prison optometry contract.
We are now the largest provider of optometry services into prisons in England and Wales.
Launch an e-commerce site to increase our sales order so we may be able to employ more trainees to make spectacles.