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For women in prison, kitchen offers a new chance

For years, a Department of Corrections program prepared male inmates for jobs in the restaurant industry. Until this year, there was no such training for women.

Melinda of the Kensington section of  Philadelphia uses a chefs knife to cut cucumbers. The knife is cable locked to a stainless steel table in the kitchen at the State Correctional Institution in Muncy, PA.
Melinda of the Kensington section of Philadelphia uses a chefs knife to cut cucumbers. The knife is cable locked to a stainless steel table in the kitchen at the State Correctional Institution in Muncy, PA.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ

Without the thick metal cables that keep the knives tethered to the counters, the training ground for the newest educational program at the women's prison in Muncy, Pa., might be indistinguishable from other culinary schools. Heads lowered in concentration, the nine students chopped cucumbers on one recent morning, aiming for slices that all looked the same.

Knife skills are practiced in every class, said Robert Wheeler, the instructor in charge of the program. But when it's time to go from a chef's knife to a paring blade, the women must all leave the room while he locks the door, switches the blades, and secures the new knives. It's one of the moments that breaks the spell during class, students said; until then, it's almost possible for them to forget where they are.

Next week the restaurant trades program at the State Correctional Institution at Muncy will graduate its first class of students. Though there has been a culinary academy for male inmates in state prisons since 2003, until this year women only had access to home economics courses through the state corrections system.

The new 13-week program, designed to mirror the men's, is a formalized, rigorous course where students learn weights and measurements, recipe conversions, cooking techniques, sauces, baking — even cake decorating. Each student leaves with a nationally accredited certificate in food handling that is good for five years and that they can present to future employers.

"We want them to succeed on the outside, and obviously this teaches them a trade," said Wheeler, a 24-year veteran of the Department of Corrections who formerly supervised Muncy's kitchen staff. "But this also benefits their home lives. Cooking is a life skill they can pass on to future generations."

Melinda, a 35-year-old inmate from Kensington with dark hair and black eyeliner, said during a break that she'd been in and out of prison for more than 15 years due to addiction. She was introduced to drugs by her parents, she said; she's lived on the street and has never held a job.

"This has helped me believe in myself. It helps me to think I might have a future," said Melinda, who has been in prison since October after she said she violated her parole with a series of drug-related charges. (At the request of prison authorities, the Inquirer and Daily News are not using her last name.) "This at least gives me the opportunity to have a career. I'm trying here. I'm trying. I want a life. I'm not giving up on myself yet."

One of two Pennsylvania state prisons for women, SCI Muncy is in Lycoming County, about 20 minutes from Williamsport. The medium- to maximum-security prison houses about 1,400 inmates (out of the statewide system's total of 37,000), including women convicted in capital cases. The training kitchen is down the hall from a cosmetology school and other vocational programs. Historically, though, women behind bars have had access to fewer opportunities for education than their male counterparts.

Statewide, even as the number of men behind bars is dropping, the female prison population is on the rise. Renee Shrimp, assistant to the superintendent at Muncy, cited the opioid crisis as a factor. Lawmakers have proposed legislation aimed at supporting incarcerated women, and this year, the Department of Corrections added the women's restaurant trades course to its other reentry programs.

Similar programs exist in other states and in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which has partnered with Philabundance to admit inmates into the Philabundance Community Kitchen, a restaurant training program that operates in North Philadelphia.

Wheeler, who began teaching in April, furnished much of the kitchen with surplus equipment from other state agencies. To keep costs down, his students use half-portions of proteins like fish. The walls of a tool closet are decorated with outlines painted around each blade and utensil — even rubber spatulas — to show which are in use. There is a sign-out sheet to document who has each one.

To be accepted to the program, inmates must have a high school diploma or GED, and at least one year of good behavior. The culinary academy in the men's prison accepts mostly inmates who are incarcerated on relatively low-level offenses, allowing only one or two per class with convictions for more serious crimes. The same is true for the first class of women: Most of Wheeler's nine students are incarcerated for charges such as theft and drug-related offenses. Two, however, are serving time for murder.

To be accepted to the class, inmates must be able to demonstrate either a passion for cooking or work-related experience. They must also pass a basic ServSafe food safety exam, a written test that is graded by the National Restaurant Association.

Some of the women in the class have past experience working in food service. Others just want to learn. One aspires to be a cake decorator; another wants to go into management.

Students get textbooks and must pass a test each week before moving to the next stage. Wheeler encourages them to experiment with flavors, like baking oatmeal one day with blueberries and a shake of lemon zest.

"I like to see them use their creativity," Wheeler said. "An omelet doesn't have to just be some onions and peppers. You could have smoked cheddar cheese, and apples."

Chef Todd Lewis, who for seven years has run the men's culinary academy out of the training academy in Elizabethtown, said some people who hear about the program balk at the idea of handing knives to convicted felons, including a few with a history of violence. But he said he's never had a problem with his students.

"These guys are here because they want to work, and they work hard," he said.

Lewis said the program first provides a point of focus, something to fill the endless days of boredom. Later, for many inmates it becomes a lifeline to the outside world, a reminder of what exists past the prison walls.

"They all say they can't wait to go home and cook for their wife, or their kids," Lewis said. "Suddenly they're accomplishing something, instead of just making it through the day."

Lewis said his students have gotten work as short-order cooks, line cooks in chain restaurants, butchers, and pizza-shop managers. One former student recently reported plans to open a restaurant with a partner.

"You got to understand, some of these guys have been down 20 years," Lewis said. "I've had more than one of them come to me with tears in his eyes, saying it's the first time their parents were proud of them, or the first time their kids were proud of them."

In Muncy on that recent morning, Wheeler circled the women as they chopped vegetables to be used in a salad bar for the prison staff. He complimented one student, and showed another how to get a better grip on the onion.

Melinda, the woman from Kensington, said she'd felt rudderless during prior stints in prison. She always knew she'd use drugs again when she got out.

"I never had support from anyone," she said. "To have someone believe in me, it feels different."