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Marble Surface

What I learned in a year of teaching culinary in a prison.

Updated: Dec 21, 2022

The day starts with packing my clear, Florida Department of Corrections tote bag. I bring 4 bottles of water, pack my lunch in a clear container…ok this is the boring part. Let’s skip ahead.

Yesterday one of my students presented the most perfect mini quiche. I mean, this quiche could be served at a cocktail party or on a beautiful brunch buffet. I was so proud of him. This was only his fourth day of class and he looked so pleased with the way his little mini quiches turned out. He fought through all the noise, all the mayhem and chaos. Through a sea of 20 students, each louder than the next, booming and boisterous, this grinning student appeared in front of me with 3 perfectly plated and garnished hors d’oeuvres. Outside our window, it’s prison. Inside this kitchen, it’s a world of opportunity.

Lesson 1: Inmates are some of the most productive, hardworking students.

I did not know what to expect when I started this job. At first, I was terrified that someone was going to take a tool, like a metal fish spatula (#iykyk) and stab someone or me with it. Or that I was going to offend one of my students, because let’s face it, the culinary industry is a fast pace go go go industry. I’m not exactly a delicate flower with my delivery sometimes. But I think the students liked a confident leader at the helm. So, the scary stabby students I thought I was working with, turned out to be teachable, respectful men that would tell me the most interesting stories. Like the time a student told me that his family business was breaking into police parking lots and stealing catalytic converters off of cop cars. My response “don’t you think you were flying a little too close to the sun?”. The same student thanked me for teaching him a skill where he can make legal money.

I learned quickly that the students, for the most part, respected the opportunity to learn a skill and were willing to work hard. I couldn’t believe how quickly these guys were able to turn the kitchen sparkling clean without any issues. When I taught at a private university, those kids would lament over the tiniest task. My students now are always asking “what’s next”.

Lesson 2: Never utter the word “who”.

It took me pretty much an entire year to break the habit of asking “who” when talking to my students. It makes them look like a snitch which is baaaaaad in prison. So now, I swallow that word and just try and listen. It’s a minor little detail, but it’s something I learned after the 300th time a student looked at me like I just gave out the nuclear codes to start world war 3.

Lesson 3: They’re going to eat all of everything until it’s gone.

Ordinarily in an educational kitchen lab, you can do projects over a couple of days. Maybe you make the baguettes for chicken parmesan sandwiches on Tuesday, then make the chicken, sauce, and finish the sandwiches on Wednesday. It takes a tremendous amount of energy in a prison kitchen lab to explain that the bread will be saved for one day and we are not eating it today. The other hoop to jump through is keeping the bread safe so that no one steals it. No matter how hard I’ve tried, I am not good at catching people stealing.

I remember one time during the Intro to Baking Unit, we made standard American birthday cakes. The cake pans we had on hand were 12 inches, which yielded gargantuan cakes. When it was time to cut the cakes and eat, the students sat down with wedges of cake bigger than their heads! It doesn’t matter how big the product is that we make, the students will split it equally and eat it until it’s all gone. This is due to food insecurity in prison. Foster kids suffer from this a lot of times as well. Food insecurity is controlled by the primal part of our brain that helps us survive when food is scarce. It is almost uncontrollable for someone that is suffering from food insecurity to not steal or gorge themselves on food when it is available.

Lesson 4: Use “Trauma Informed Teaching” skills

I found the best way to approach my classes was to use trauma informed parenting skills that I learned when my wife and I were trying to adopt. Sadly, we never were able to adopt. But the trauma informed parenting skills that I learned were easily modified into trauma informed teaching. This means meeting the students where they are sometimes. Prison is a very stressful place for everyone. The inmates, staff, and corrections officers all deal with unimaginable stressors on the compound.

It’s common for a student inmate student to shut down during instruction. Instead of matching the student’s frustration, I’ll suggest we take a break and revisit the situation in a few minutes. A lot of times, my students can’t articulate what is frustrating them. So, I’ll draw thought bubbles on the board and see if we can identify the problem. Most of the time, it’s a matter of their needs being met. Or needing to feel heard. Very easy solutions, with very little escalation. It’s not a perfect system, but we get through each day relatively unscathed.

Lesson 5: This one’s a hard one. You will interact with white supremacists, sex offenders, gang members, murderers, satanists, drug dealers, you name it, every day. And you will treat them all with respect, dignity, and teach them a skill without prejudice.

When I took this job, I made the agreement with myself that I would not judge anyone by their criminal record. I am not the judge, victim, or family member to any of these guys. I am simply here to teach. I can keep my mind blank when I’m working with my students and focus on teaching most of the time. But occasionally one will remind me of why they went to prison. A student that committed a violent crime making a joke about hitting someone over the head with a rolling pin; a sex offender talking about how much time they spent in the Philippines; a student confessing they used to torture small animals. Very scary, very creepy. I have to do witchy stuff to get that energy off of me when I get home--burn some sage, hold some crystals, punch a heavy bag.

This job has changed me forever. I have gratitude everyday when I leave that prison. I jump in my truck and have a road snack, a fizzy water, and tune into Howard Stern or a podcast. I’m fortunate enough that my generational trauma is minimal. I have never experienced homelessness. And by some miracle, all the stupid stuff I did as a kid never landed me in prison. So, I go to work every weekday, look towards the light, try to shut out the dark, and know my puppies and wife are waiting for me at home.

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