Teaching prisoners how to cook: Part 1

trial bay gaolOne of the things that come with having chosen a career as a chef is the opportunity to work in weird and wonderful places. Remote islands, hotels in beautiful retreats, famous people’s homes, yachts, ships…basically anywhere people go away for leisure.

In October 2012 I received a phone call from a friend of mine who asked if I’d be interested in doing some contract work for a company she’d worked for previously. I love experiencing new things and places and said it was fine, she could pass my information on to the company. A few hours later I was contacted by the company. They said the job involved training learners on how to be chefs. I love sharing knowledge (hence this blog) and so agreed…she then went on to mention that the learners in question were prisoners…in an actual prison…and that I’d need to teach them in the prison itself! A week later off I drove, about 300km north of Johannesburg to a small little town called Mokopane in the Limpopo province. The head office of the company who’d hired me was based there. They’d asked me to come with a friend who was also a chef as there were quite a few prisons they were contracted to provide training to. I went with Joggie, one of my buddies from chef academy. The one I called our version of “Cartman” in my “Chef Journey” blog posts. Although very different to me in personality and cooking style I trusted him as we’d both been trained in exactly the same way, he wouldn’t be teaching people nonsense.

So we arrived at the office…a 3 hour drive later and went through a 4 hours “training” session where we were briefed on how one goes about training people and what we should do. Throughout the whole session I kept on thinking to myself if I was the only one who was stuck on the fact that we were going to be going into prisons to do the training? We collected loads of boxes of files and work material and drove the 300km’s back to Johannesburg. I’d been assigned a prison called Modderbee, in Benoni, whilst Joggie had been assigned Pretoria…South Africa’s most secure maximum prison (although a prisoner named Annanias Mathe once escaped from there a few years ago and was subsequently dubbed “SA’s most wanted man”). There was another chef there at the training with us, a short little lady. She had been assigned Johannesburg prison, sometimes referred to as “Sun City” because of its grand gardens and hotel like appearance from the outside.  She’d been assigned it because the prisoners she’d interact with were to be women.

I arrived at Modderbee Correctional Facility on a Monday. Not knowing what to expect or see. At the entrance to the prison grounds your vehicle is searched. Only suppliers and prison vehicles are allowed within the grounds. Prison officials cars and visitors have to park outside the prison grounds. I asked the guard at the gate why this was so and they said it was to prevent escapes and smuggling of things into and out of the prison. I was asked to hand over all cell phones and any communication devices. After that was over I was allowed in. As I was an “external vendor” I was allowed to drive right into the prison grounds. Parking was right outside the entrance door. There is only one entrance/exit door to the entire prison. I later learned that there is another one for deliveries and equipment at the back of the prison but that’s it. A facility that holds about 5000 prisoners (the SA government doesn’t refer to prisoners as prisoners but rather as ‘offenders’ and that prison wardens are referred to as ‘correctional officers’. The art of political correctness is clearly a thriving business!).

Once you’re through the wooden door at the entrance you’re met by another even more daunting–looking metallic door just beyond a small waiting area. In the waiting area I had to declare myself, fill out a form with all of my details and reasons as to why I was at the prison. I was searched thoroughly and then given a visitors tag. The guards who guard the entrance/exit door wear bullet proof vests and carry weapons…but they’re the only ones who do, everyone else who works there didn’t have weapons. Apparently they only fetch weapons from the weapons room when a riot breaks out or if necessary. Carrying a gun whilst walking around the prison is actually more dangerous for the correctional officers than if they don’t have them. If a prisoner was to get hold of the gun a lot of people’s lives would be in danger.

So after making it though the THIRD door into the prison I found myself in a bigger waiting area that was more akin to a small hall. It had a cool drink vending machine and benches all along the wall. The colour scheme of South African prison’s is a combination of army green, brown and beige. Uniforms, furniture, vehicles and almost everything is painted in those colours. Prisoners wear bright orange uniforms which have circular rings with the words “Correctional Services” all over them. The theory is that if a prisoner escapes, they can be seen from a distance. So as I sat in that waiting area I observed as people came and went. There were office workers, they also wore beige and brown uniforms but their’s were more “corporate” looking, the women also tended to wear skirts and heels. The female ‘correctional officers’ wore more army like uniforms. There were prisoners walking around as well in the waiting area. Although I was in the prison, technically I still wasn’t. There was an even more solid looking metal door at the end of the waiting area. The section I was in was where the offices and corporate side of the prison was. To get into the actual prison side where inmates were kept I’d soon learn I’d need to go through 2 more metal doors.

Whilst sitting in the waiting area I was met by the person who’d be my contact person in the prison for the 2 months I was scheduled to do my training. He was the head of the education section of the prison, Mr Madonsela was his name. He took me to first meet with the prison commissioner. A serious looking man who seemed pleased to have me there. Apparently they’d been asking for a course in cookery for years. One of the goals of the correctional services department is to make the prison’s self sustaining and lower their reliance on outside caterers.

So after many shaking of hands I was let through the door at the end of the waiting hall by the guard who basically controls who can and can’t go into the prison. Without them there no one would get in or out. Over the 10 weeks I was there I’d come to know them well. Through a long passage I went…til we were met by yet another metal door. After being let through that door by the guard behind it we entered another small area. This one had 3 metal doors. I was told the door to the right let to the maximum security section where all the serious crimes prisoners were “hosted”, these were criminals who’d committed murder, violent crimes or were considered too dangerous to be allowed to stay in the general population side of the prison. The serious offenders weren’t allowed to do education courses and participate in those “remedial” type things unless special permission had been given. The door directly in front was the one I’d walk through every day for 10 weeks. Behind it lay a long long long corridor that led to the library, kitchens, education wing and the various sections the prisoners stayed in.

5000 prisoners in orange. One chef in black. 12 files on how to become a cook and a few markers and pens in my pocket. It would turn out to be one of the most interesting experiences of my life…

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