About a dozen fledgling chefs perked up when the fragrant pineapple upside-down cake came steaming out of the oven. Brimming with pride, the culinary students helped themselves to plates piled high with the baked chicken, rice and peas and, of course, the crumbly golden cake that they had just learned to make.
But the cooking class ended on an unusual note: armed prison guards lined up the budding bakers and escorted the men back to their cells on Rikers Island, the infamous Queens prison that houses about 11,000 inmates.
The men, serving time for crimes including assault and credit card fraud, had signed up to receive culinary training through the Osborne Association’s Fresh Start program. The Bronx-based organization works with current and former prisoners to give them job skills and employment assistance to help them beat the overwhelming odds that they will wind up behind bars again after they are released. The program’s latest class of about two dozen aspiring cooks will graduate on July 26.
“All these guys have one common denominator—they are determined not to come back to jail,” said Jennifer Lockhart, who works for Osborne helping inmates reintegrate back into society. “It’s easier for people with a criminal background to get a job in the foodservice industry.”
Between 300 and 450 prisoners serving less than a year apply annually for the program’s coveted 72 spots—including many who have never even boiled water.
At the end of the 10-week training, where participants learn to whip up dishes like sesame chicken and noodles, fried chicken and waffles, and meaty lasagna, they can apply for a food handler’s certification. The permit gives them a leg up on the job-hunting competition.
“We know that the culinary [field] is an industry in New York City is not closed to people with criminal records,” said William Waters, director of jail-based services at Osborne. “We believe we can help people find employment in this particular sector.”
Edgar Estevez, 23, of the Bronx, said he is hoping that will be the case for him when he’s released from jail next month after serving time for credit card fraud and identity theft.
“I want to get a legit job. I got a 3-month-old daughter. I got to change my lifestyle,” said Estevez, who dreams of one day opening up his own restaurant. “I want to have a cooking job and become a chef.”
He said that he was grateful to be given a second chance. “This is not an opportunity you get every day,” Estevez said.
John Norwood, 46, of Harlem, said he signed up for the program because he’s “crazy about food.”
“I hope that a door opens up for me or shows me a different way,” said Norwood, who is serving time for gun possession. “I don’t want to come back to jail. I have two younger daughters back home that adore me.”
But the recidivism rate for prisoners on Rikers Island is staggeringly high. About two-thirds of all inmates return to jail within three years of their release. But only 30 percent of Fresh Start graduates succumb to the same fate, according to the Osborne Association.
Those statistics don’t surprise Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in Manhattan.
“When you can connect people to meaningful job opportunities in the community that pay a living wage and, therefore, allow them to have a place to live and a way to feed themselves and feed their families, then you see very low recidivism rates,” Jacobs said. “In general, culinary programs have proven to be really effective.”
That’s due to the sheer number of opportunities in the city’s vast sea of restaurants and food-related businesses, she said. And with a combination of hard work, talent and drive, workers can rise through the ranks.
That’s why the Fortune Society, another organization that works with released prisoners, is also looking into providing culinary training for former inmates and is considering opening a café at its Long Island City, Queens, location.
“This is a crime-fighting strategy as well a social good,” said the group’s president and CEO JoAnne Page.
“If someone has a legitimate income stream that pays a living wage, that’s an enormous stabilizing influence,” she said. “People don’t want to lose what they’ve got [by being locked up again].”
Deric Powell, 46, of Jamaica, Queens, certainly doesn’t want to end up on the wrong side of the law again. He’s been arrested twice for driving under the influence.
Powell signed up for Osborne’s program because he wanted to take his life in a new direction and hopefully land a job in his family’s catering business. He also enjoys cooking for his wife and two kids.
“It’s a new start for a new future,” said Powell, who is scheduled to be released later this month. “Maybe this is my calling.”
— Clare Trapasso, City Spoonful