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Jail Mixes Recipe for Rehab Success

Cooking classes prep inmates for life on the outside

The San Mateo County jail cook off teams county leaders such as Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson (right) with inmates.
The San Mateo County jail cook off teams county leaders such as Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson (right) with inmates.

Inmates at California's San Mateo County Jail have found their own recipe for success.

There's a special contest in the jail's kitchen. Women in white chef's jackets race around with onions and skillets. Four teams have just two hours to prepare and serve seven dishes. The dishes include Jambalaya stew, pecan pie and roasted salmon.

Inmate Angela Reyes scoops the vegetables, while the other women on her cooking team plate the fish and wipe the edge.

"Cleaning the edges with a wet cloth so that way its presentation isn't all the grease and oil that we might have spilt around," she says.

The team then rushes the dish out to the judges, who are generous with their praise.

Cooking for success

The chef at the San Mateo County Jail came up with the idea of offering cooking classes so inmates could learn the basics of the trade. Elihu Catell was frustrated to find the same inmates returning to his breakfast room once they'd done their time and been released.

"I started asking them, what happened? 'Well, nothing happened. I didn't do nothing. I just went back to the same things,'" says Catell. "I said, 'Well, what if something happens here that makes you see something different than that?'"

Catell's friend Adam Weiner runs the culinary program for a local social support organization called Job Train. The two teamed up in January to offer weekly classes at the jail. All 12 of the women inmates, and almost a dozen of the men, participated in the most recent class. Weiner says the hope is that - once they're released - the inmates will continue their studies with daily courses at Job Train's facility.

"They learn how to get a job, how to write a resume, how to work with a boss, how to get promoted," says Weiner. "They're learning far more than how to hold a knife and peel an onion."

Some of the former inmates have gone on to jobs at restaurants, catering companies and on cruise ships.

Working together

Weiner says one of his favorite parts of the jail cooking competition was that each team included inmates and leaders from the county's criminal justice system.

"It was kind of showing everybody, instead of an 'us versus them,' it was a 'we can all work together and we can all work together as a team to do something creative.'"

When it came time to pick the judges for the competition, there was at least one natural for the job: Steven Hall, the presiding judge of San Mateo County.

Hall has seen some of these women before - in his courtroom.

"Everybody here is really committed to trying to get folks who are going to be coming back into the community re-employed with job skills so that if I see them again they'll be a juror, not in front of me in custody," he says.

High hopes

That's what Jenelle Delugg hopes for. She came to cheer on the women she served time with up until two months ago. In the days leading up to her release, she was allowed to leave the jail to take classes at the nonprofit's regular school.

"I only did that for a couple weeks before I was actually released. The day I was released I went to school," she says. "I had to report at school and I've not missed a day since."

Now, in addition to culinary training, she's learning computer skills and getting advice on dressing professionally through Job Train.

Experts say this kind of integrated program increases prisoners' chances for future success. Mindy Tarlow is chief executive officer for the New York-based non-profit Center for Employment Opportunities.

"What's really important is to start training programs on the inside, be able to continue them on the outside," says Mindy Tarlow, chief executive officer for the New York-based nonprofit Center for Employment Opportunities. "So that people can get the training that they need in a seamless way from inside prison to outside prison."

And then, on to a job. Tarlow says vocational programs work. A 2006 study found a 12 percent reduction in recidivism among inmates who'd received job training while incarcerated. Culinary arts director Weiner says that no one who has participated in Job Train's cooking program has returned to the San Mateo prison system.

Amelia Otis, who said she was serving time me for a parole violation, was one of the winners of the cook off.

"I thought it was like a little cooking class just to keep us busy, but it's way more than that," says Otis. "It's like an experience that we can take on, that we can take beyond the walls of this facility to keep us on the right track so we don't have to end up back here."

Officials at the jail hope to hold two of these competitions each year. They aspire to open the program to more of the male inmates while also expanding it to other facilities.