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This Prison Is Teaching Inmates Serious Knife Skills, Here’s Why

by Kathleen Willcox

posted on January 07, 2020

Photo Courtesy: iStock/byakkaya

About one in 38 American adults are in prison, according to the Department of Justice. That’s a staggering number, by any measure, but it’s even more disturbing when you consider how many inmates end up back behind bars within a matter or years, or even months, of release. With a problem this vast, many of us are left simply hoping that someone, somewhere, is making an effort to help these prisoners find their way to a brighter future ahead.

As it turns out, there is a bright beam of hope shining from Coldwater, Michigan, where an audacious chef has turned a prison cafeteria into an off-the-radar Michelin-star-contender. Here, inmates grow organic produce in gardens, then pick, prep, cook, and serve haute cuisine and down-home comfort food (think roasted leg of lamb, duck confit, vegetarian lasagna, butter-braised okra) to staff members and guests.

(Photo Courtesy: Jimmy Lee Hill)

While it sounds like a daydream cooked up by the ghosts of Julia Child and prison reformer Samuel June Barrows, it’s the very real result of what happens when one person in power (Executive Chef Jimmy Lee Hill) sees a small window of opportunity for a large group of people who might otherwise get sucked back into a life of crime. “There are two things that will never go away in life,” Hill muses. “People need to eat, and people need to die. I did not want to develop a mortuary science program, so I decided to develop a program that provided a broad range of skills.”

Rates on recidivism are grim: according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, five out of six state prisoners were arrested at least once during the nine years following their release. “Some of the people in here should be in here for a long time,” Hill says. “But some of the other ones? They deserve a second shot. But all too often, when inmates leave incarceration, they leave without skills, without direction. And that’s when they can get into trouble.”

(Photo Courtesy: Jimmy Lee Hill)

For the past 29 years, Hill has been erecting an intricate system in which hundreds of prisoners in the Michigan Department of Corrections have acquired useful skills that are sought after on the outside. Hill helps run the Lakeland Food Technology program at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan. (Lakeland is a Level II facility, which means it’s a rung above the lowest security prison.) Through the program, Hill teaches two classes a day of 25 prisoners each; students are inmates from Lakeland and other Level II facilities around the state — about half are bused in.

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NOTE: In Level II facilities (also known as low-security), inmates are housed dormitory-style. Some history of violence, including sexual violence, is permitted at Level II facilities, but inmates must have less than 20 years remaining on their sentence to be eligible. In contrast: medium- and high-security inmates are housed in cells, they almost always have a history of violence, and the perimeter of the facility is more-tightly guarded.

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Over the years, the student selection process has undergone increasing levels of red tape: “It used to be, I’d pick people out of the yard myself,” Hill says. “People I thought I had potential.” But the program’s success — and probably, let’s face it, bureaucracy — mandated a more restrictive selection process: Now, prisoners must not have committed a violent incident for at least five years and have a GED or high school diploma before qualifying to enter the program. Still, between the population of Lakeland and nearby facilities, there are plenty of eager students to fill the classes.

(Photo Courtesy: Jimmy Lee Hill)

The course itself is reminiscent of a classic culinary arts education: knife skills (the knives are secured to kitchen equipment and cannot be carried off), safety, sanitation, baking, and haute cuisine are taught, plus classes designed to teach waiting staff, catering, management, and sommelier skills. Prisoners also hone their math skills in the program, a skill which is vital both for converting recipes and for estimating food costs.

“We pay special attention to every detail, including plating and service,” Hill says.

The program, which features five tiers, takes most prisoners about 14 months to complete. There are practical and written exams, and students emerge being able to fabricate a chicken, prepare an unclouded fish stock, produce a perfect truffle, and create a menu, while also gaining the interpersonal skills necessary to succeed in a kitchen and on a restaurant floor.

Hill also recognizes that while some people are going to naturally gravitate towards beverage service, others will prefer to wait tables, and some will just want to spend time outside in the garden tending to the dozens of fruits and vegetables. He gives them the room to nourish and grow their nascent talents. “Right now, I have two amazing people working the garden,” he says. “They love it. It’s all they want to do.” And as long as they still take their classes and pass their tests, he’s happy to have them nurture their green thumb.

Hill’s brand of no-nonsense task acquisition with customizable focuses, is garnering enviable results. Michigan’s recidivism rate is the lowest it’s ever been in state history, with the number of offenders who return to prison within three years plummeting to just over 28-percent from a high of more than 45-percent 20 years ago, according to a spokesperson for Michigan Corrections. “I want everyone in the program to succeed,” Hill says. “Some don’t make it out of the first tier. Some leave and then come back. And some soar right away.”

(Photo Courtesy: Jimmy Lee Hill)

Promisingly, Hill is in touch with a number of “graduates” (prisoners emerge with three official food certificates), many of whom go on to continue their culinary educations at outside cooking schools, or report directly to restaurant kitchens. Scores of prep cooks and waiters around the country were trained under Hill. And several have gone on to run catering services for country clubs. One is even the executive chef of a private yacht in the South of France. “Now I want that job,” Hill jokes.

“No the truth is, a lot of the people I teach need guidance. They need skills. They need a path forward.” Hill delivers that. And twice a month, on the second and fourth Thursday, they offer diners willing to make the trek to prison a taste of their sweet and savory futures at the Saffron Café. At $5, it’s probably the best pay-it-forward bargain you’ll ever taste.

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