Teaching prisoners how to cook: Part 3

Victorinox-Knife-SetAfter paperwork and a lot of phone calls I was finally assigned the 16 inmates who would be my trainees for about 3 months. The course in point that I would be giving consisted of 4 modules. Module one covered the health, safety and general work stuff that goes with working in the hospitality industry. It detailed what to do in case of injury, how one should never run in the kitchen, what to do in case of a fire etc etc. Module 2 covered Hot Kitchen and how to use knives. Module 3 covered Cold Kitchen and lastly the 4th module detailed how to work in Pastry Kitchen. It wasn’t an in depth diploma course like the one a qualified chef has to go through but it was detailed enough to make a fairly competent assistant chef of someone who’d never cooked before.

Of the 16 inmates I’d been assigned, 4 of them worked in the prison kitchen already. They told me they’d been told the course was for professional meat butchering. Apparently the prison management had been promising them a professional butchery course for years. I laughed it off and said for a butcher to be good at the job they’d need to first understand food and why you need certain cuts of meat in a kitchen. They frowned a bit when I told them I would teach them to bake as well but they got over it quickly when I said they’d get to keep anything they cooked or baked.

In the South African prison system certain prison’s have outside caterers that have been given contracts to come into the prisons and prepare and serve food. The caterer’s bring in their own staff members but they are very few and very lowly skilled. They then ask the prison to supply them with labour and so you’d have a whole lot of inmates who then work in the kitchen. When I visited the Modderbee prison kitchen (I’ll detail the experience later) I counted roughly 40 inmates and only about 10 outside caterer chefs. Unlike the rest of the inmates who wear orange, inmates who work in the kitchen wear a special white correctional services uniform and also get old school French chef style mushroom hats. The inmates apparently use their positions in the kitchen to gain favours and privileges from other inmates and buddies. Amazing what an extra apple or two can do in a prison. So when I told them whatever we made in the kitchen would be their’s to keep the whole class’s faces lit up. For a few days they’d be kings.

The word soon spread to other inmates and often I’d be met by a new face every few days or so who’d be asking me if he can also join the class. It was funny at first but once the learners in my class explained to me why these other inmates wanted to be in my class it became a bit annoying, some would still ask me even after we’d gone more than 6 weeks into the course. I heard through one of the correctional officers that some of my class were telling other inmates about how they’d be cooking prawns and pizza’s and eating a whole lot of exotic things! No wonder I was suddenly Mr Popularity.

I would need to do the whole checking in and gate procedure I detailed in the Part 1 every day I was at Moderbee. If I arrived at the prison at 8am I’d only get to the classroom and begin teaching at 9am. That’s how much time and hassle it was to get from the outside of the prison to the education centre located right at the heart of the building. I also had a whole lot of paperwork and files to carry with me. As mentioned above, we had 4 modules to cover, in each module you had theory and practicals and their respective tests. I’d left the corporate sector 5 years ago to avoid the paperwork…but it seemed to have followed me! For each module each learner would get 4 files. That’s 16 files per learner. 16 files multiplied by 16 students and you have a mountain of paperwork. Add to that I had admin files myself. Each day I’d need to take a class attendance roster and do a daily diary. I had to do a daily class plan and also a daily health check of the classroom environment. I had to get identification documents from every inmate, they couldn’t be registered on the database without them…you’d be surprised at just how many people do not know their identification numbers. Some only managed to get their numbers to me by the 6th week of the course. Inmates get a PP number when they are first incarcerated, this number is their identification number inside the prison for the duration of their prison sentence. Mandela’s Robben Island number is a logo and brand now, “46664”. So the inmates who’d been incarcerated for a long time eventually forget their actual identification numbers that appear in their citizen ID books.

I also tried my hardest not to ask them what they had been incarcerated for and I’ll proudly say I made it through the 10 weeks without ever finding out why each one of the 16 prisoners who my students was imprisoned for. I didn’t want to prejudice the way I’d interact with each person nor bring in my own morals and judgmental views into it. I approached the job as me, a chef and trainer and them as simply human beings who’d been placed in a strange environment for making mistakes earlier in their lives. I did, however, ask a few of them how long they’d been jailed for. No one in the class was there for less than 15 years. That fact shocked me. I stopped myself short of working out what crimes would give more than 15 years as sentences. In my free time between lectures and during breaks I’d sit with them and ask them about life in a prison. They were very candid and open about it, surprisingly. They told me about the segregation in the various cells. South Americans all stay in certain sections (Modderbee is where most foreign criminals get sent. A lot of the South American’s there were in prison for drug trafficking). Nigerians also stay in their own cells and apparently prefer making their own food. They told me that even though cell phones were banned from entering the prison, like mine were taken from me at the entrance by the guards, apparently because of the corruption being so prevalent in the prisons nearly every prisoner had a cell phone. The police would do early morning surprise raids now and then which not even the prison commissioner knows about and prison cells would be searched inside out. Cell phones, laptops and even iPads are confiscated. As soon as they’re taken away by the cops…the prisoners say that within hours they can get things smuggled in again. Mr Madonsela was very happy to tell me about how newly incarcerated prisoners would smuggle things through various parts of their body but I’ll spare you the details. He was also all to happy to tell me about prisoner’s “romantic” interactions. Yep. That place isn’t for the squeamish. A lot of my class, at least, were due for release in a the next 5 years and they’d also been earmarked to take over the chef positions from the catering company in the kitchen, so at least the skills I’d be passing onto them would be used for good and help them get jobs once outside.

The first module took the longest as it also had the most theory. I’d have to take minds that had never experienced a 5 star hospitality environment  and try get them to picture what it may be like. I explained how we use different coloured boards for different produce. What organic farming was. The new fashions in the culinary world. The various levels of cheffing in the chef brigade system. I also taught them about knives and what each one is for. We covered bacteria, food diseases, how to handle food and produce. How to behave in a professional kitchen and what is expected of a professional chef etc etc. You name it, we covered it. Of the 10 weeks of the course the first 4 weeks was purely theory and tests about the hospitality industry, kitchens and being a chef.

At the end of the module I would have to bring in my own professional chef knives. Me, training 16 prisoners, in a classroom in a prison of 5000 prisoners…with very sharp chef knives on how to use chef knives properly. To say it was an experience I’ll never forget is an understatement…

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