Teaching prisoners how to cook: Part 4

After the initial shock of the realisation that for almost 3 months my daily routine would involve me travelling to a prison every week day morning, being checked through 4 heavily guarded security gates and walk through long corridors lined with inmates dressed in orange uniforms I started relaxing and allowing myself the chance to actually absorb the moment and opportunity.03_subotsky_jp141010_g

The education centre itself is a bit of an eye in the storm that is the Modderbee Correctional Facility. To gain access to the education section inmates have to first get permission from the commissioner of the area to be allowed to study a course. Once that permission is granted the inmate then has to communicate with their cell correctional officials who will then pass word onto the education management team. Timetables are drawn up and the relevant courses are scheduled. The inmate will then go into a database that will detail what he is studying, for how long the course will last and when he will write exams and the like. It’s very detailed and thorough in order to insure that inmates movements are always accounted for at any given time…and it also serves another purpose of making sure that only South African citizens and inmates who will be released sooner will have first priority. As all education is paid for by tax money only South African inmates are allowed to study, foreign inmates can study as well but their study fees will have to be paid for by their families or friends. The inmates in my class all told me that studying was their way of getting their minds away from their immediate environment. A lot of them had studied 3 or 4 other courses. One was even doing a degree course in engineering. The theory behind pushing inmates who had 5 or less years left to serve into studying was to give the inmates a chance to follow a different, crime-free, path once outside. For a person to study a course with 15 years left for them to serve is a bit pointless as by the time they’re released they will have forgotten most of it. This still didn’t seem to prevent some inmates from trying their luck. In the tiling class immediately opposite my class 2 of the learners participating were serving life sentences. One grey head man was serving a sentence that had no possibility of parole. I asked him why he would study about tiles and tiling when he would never get a chance to use the skill he replied that he was doing the course to spend a few hours a day outside of his cell and away from the reality of prison.

As mentioned before, a few of the guys in my class worked in the prison kitchen already. That fact didn’t mean they actually understood food and what the cooking industry actually entails. Cooking for 5000 inmates everyday isn’t child’s play, the kitchen in the prison was a huge vacuum of a venue. Basically a huge hall that had a long row of industrial size cooking drums, flat tops and ovens in the centre. At one end of the hall was the food and beverage manager’s office, behind it was the training centre (two rooms I’d come to learn had very political and dramatic stories behind their doors. At the other end of the hall were different cubicles of sinks. I say ‘cubicles’ because they were designed in the way that open plan call centre offices are designed for some reason. L-shaped shoulder height walls separated each sink from the next. Beyond the sinks were the catering company offices, the heavy duty mincing machines, the walk in freezer and fridge, the store room and the delivery rooms. The only other entry point to the prison besides the main entrance gate was the food and goods delivery room. Also with a vigilant guard always on duty. For me to get out through the delivery doors I’d need a prison guard with me and get approval first. The place was always busy with people, the only quiet time was after lunch had been prepared…which was around 10am…a time that would become very familiar to me at Modderbee. We were only allowed to use the kitchen facilities between 10am and 2pm…and even to get that bit of time to make use of the space was a whole political debate between myself, the food and beverage manager, the catering company and the education section manager. Bureaucracy is always the order of the day when it comes to South African government institutions. It took me almost 3 days to finally wrangle out a way for my students and I to get cooking space in the kitchen. A room full of egos and people trying to prove who had bigger balls than the next person. Anyway, I eventually did manage to get a corner section of the kitchen allocated to my class.

Every morning after the whole signing in and escort process I’d have to go through before getting to the actual education section and my classroom I’d be met by prisoners dressed in orange. At first they were all enthusiastic and excited but after realising that for the first 6 weeks we’d actually be doing theory and the understanding of cooking and the catering industry they started arriving in dribs and drabs and 3 of them actually dropped out. They were always replaced by new people though. I’d sometimes even get stopped as I walked to the classroom by other prisoners who’d ask me to please add them to the class. Unfortunately my contract was only to train 16 prisoners but it was heartening to see how enthusiastic people were about the opportunities the industry actually has for people who enter it. I’d always be dressed in my chef’s uniform, so in a sea of orange and brown clothes I stuck out like a sore thumb. At first I was worried I’d be in danger as I could easily be identified as an outsider but after the first few weeks and interacting with inmates my worries died down.

Being inside a prison isn’t as harrowing an experience as I’d thought it might be. Yes it isn’t a pleasant and homely place. There’s lots of metal and concrete and long empty corridors. There are a lot of echoes and footsteps through the cold spaces and passages and very little sunlight in many places but what I also realised is that besides the reason the building was built all 5000 souls inside the walls of Modderbee were human beings too, yes most had wronged society but the majority wanted to actually better themselves and actually live lives that were meaningful. The prison had a church choir and church services on certain days. They would have community upliftment projects where prisoners helped in their immediate communities and assisted charities. Every day I was there I would see a charity or NPO (non-profit organisation) representative visiting. So it wasn’t all doom and gloom. One thing that did catch me by surprise was the number of female Correctional Services officers. They walked freely in and out of cells and within the prison…without weapons. I was told a few horror stories and some really eye-brow raising tales of what has happened between warders and prisoners before…

Ok, on to the actual cooking lessons. Well, as I said above, of the 8-10 weeks I would be at Modderbee, 6 of the weeks would be spent on theory. Every day we’d cover a section of the theory file. We’d do a practical example and discuss the section and I’d ramble on about my personal experiences in the industry and then they’d write a test and revision. Sounds simple but I soon realised it would take skill in multi-tasking. What a book on teaching won’t tell you is that not everyone understands what you’re talking about. The feedback file I would fill in everyday actually asked me to name who the slow learners in the class were and what I had done to try and ‘remedy’ the situation. I found a lot of my time was taken up by drawing explanatory diagrams and explaining things in my simple version as compared to the complicated English of the theory files.

When I was at chef school we’d have 1 day of theory a week as 2nd commis chefs and the rest of the week we’d spend practicing what we learned. Unfortunately with the amount of bureaucracy in the system, we didn’t have that level of freedom. I’d try my hardest to replicate examples of things, like when I brought in my chef knives. One of the entrenched fundamentals of being a chef is to know knives and what they’re for and how to use them. In black and white it may seem trivial but be faced with a whole knife bag with 30 types of knives and utensils and you’ll soon realise its not as simple as it may sound. The majority of the class weren’t English mother tongue speakers so you can just imagine trying to describe what a tourne knife is in as simple terms as possible. I had to go through a screening process to be allowed to enter with my knives. At the entrance of the prison each and every knife is checked and signed in. I’d also be searched as I left. I taught the class how to use my knives by bringing in my own knife boards, flour and carrots. Flour is good when learning how to chop and slice properly because it shows you exactly where you’re going wrong by leaving lines in it. I was a bit worried about it at first, inmates and knives aren’t exactly a good combination but they proved my concerns wrong. Not one knife went missing nor was there any drama. They would sometimes tease me by pointing a knife at me but it was always done in jest. I’d told them how worried I was about bring knives into that place.

Between lectures I’d sit with some the inmates and try discuss how prison life was for them. Their stories were surprisingly candid and honest. The majority regretted the reasons they were in prison in the first place and wanted to just be given a second chance once outside. They did admit though, that not all prisoners had the same mentality that they did. Most of the guys in my class were from one cell. Apparently their cell was the one where all the “intellectual” inmates stayed. They studied, read and did most of the educational stuff on offer within the prison. Other cells had other priorities be they based on nationality, race, ethnic background, gang affiliation etc.

To cut to the chase, each day we’d cover about 3 to 4 subjects within the theory file. Subjects ranged from what to do when in an emergency situation with a knife to how to plate and present food and differences between organic and non-organic food. We covered a huge amount of info and details. I’ll spare you the details. Maybe one day when I’m really in the mood I’ll detail how one takes a complete novice and turns them into a fairly competent cook. I’d love to tell you about each individual inmate and their antics and the nonsense we’d discuss and get up to but I doubt I’d ever finish typing. I got to know each one pretty well (as well as a prison environment would allow) and would gladly employ them once they get out.

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