Utah County Jail culinary program provides skills, bridges divides

A culinary program at the Utah County Jail employs inmates in the jail's commercial kitchen, aiming to change behavior, provide employable skills, and bridge divides between law enforcement and inmates. 

Evan Cobb/The Daily Herald/AP
John Richins clears a counter in the kitchen of the Utah County Jail in Spanish Fork, Utah on Jan. 23. The Utah County Jail Culinary Arts program employs inmates to work in a commercial kitchen.

The smell of fresh-baked bread fills the air of the commercial kitchen as an industrial dishwasher hums in the background. Men in a variety of colored hairnets and maroon shirts, with Utah County Jail printed in black lettering, wipe down tables, peel vegetables, and prep meals.

The Utah County Jail Culinary Arts program utilizes inmates labor in the commercial kitchen. The kitchen produces thousands of meals a day for the Meals on Wheels program, jail staff, and for the inmates themselves. The culinary program is one of the programs that provides on the job training for inmates within the county jail.

"It is an opportunity for them to go into society, to take something with them back into society for when they reacclimatize into society," Larry Hunter, the food service administrator of the culinary arts program, said.

In January of 2017, the Code 7 Cafe was opened in the Utah County Jail. The cafe expanded the possibilities of the culinary program and allowed for more opportunities for education and skill development for those within the program.

Because of the newness of the program, there are still only limited amounts of statistics available on the impact the program has had on a large-scale. However, all of those involved with the program highlight anecdotal evidence of the positive impact that has allowed for released inmates to have a savings when reentering society and to finding a job related to the work within the program.

The culinary arts program operates very similar to other commercial kitchens. The inmates start the program by washing dishes and work their way up to baking and cooking food.

"There is a process that they can work through," Mr. Hunter said, "If you perform and do what you are supposed to do, you will have opportunities."

This step-by-step process allows for the civilian cooks to help evaluate the quality of work along the way and make sure that positive behavior is rewarded and negative behavior is mitigated.

"They've got to uphold their side of being deputies and us being inmates, but they do they best they can, they give us respect and treat us like were just working a normal job," Andres Torres, a current member of the program, said.

Focusing on the behavior of the inmates has been a staple of the program since the beginning. Focusing on changing behavior rather than simply locking the inmates up is a key component of philosophy passed down from the top in the sheriff's office.

Lt. Jeff Jones, the jail industries director, highlights the fact that you can either treat people like people or like objects. "If you treat people like people, they will respond appropriately," Mr. Jones said.

Deputy Jason Heidel, the food service manager, takes this philosophy very personally and in many ways. Mr. Heidel prefers to refer to the inmates as "workers" when they are in the kitchen. Also, the clothing that the frontline workers wear doesn't have the writing of Utah County Jail on the back. Heidel tells them all "if you want to act like an inmate, there is place you can go. If you want to be a worker, there is a place for you in the kitchen." This echoes the focus on behavior and highlights the opportunity for individual choice and progress within the kitchen for the program participants.

The benefit for the inmates that participate in the kitchen program goes beyond a skill.

"For the most part, this is the first positive interaction that a lot of these gentlemen have had with law enforcement," Heidel said.

Heidel appreciates the personal touch that food offers. "For both sides, this adversarial relationship goes away when this guy is cooking eggs for you," he said.

Joe Byington, a worker within the culinary arts program, echoes that education and camaraderie comes with participation in the program.

"I wasn't expecting to learn this much and be a part of a team this much," Mr. Byington said.

He also mentions that tolerance and learning to work with a variety of people helps build leadership skills that will transfer to jobs once the inmates are released from jail.

Hunter said he believes that the straightforwardness of the program is a key strength.

"The crazy part is it seems so simple. Something just like flipping pancakes or making omelets or something like that. Just by teaching them these little things, it is huge, it's big. Some of these kids have never made a bed in their life. To take these kids and teach them a trade or skill is huge and it helps them," he said. "If you teach them something, that gives them self-worth and it goes a long way."

All of this education and experience comes in a short amount of time, because the average inmate within the culinary arts program is serving between 90 to 120 days in jail. The length of the stay and the trust given to the inmates comes from the type of inmate that the Utah County Jail has.

Sgt. James Baldwin, of the jail industries program at the Utah County Jail, believes that the religious and family background of many of the inmates contributes to the success of the programs. He highlights that what programs may work at one jail, may not work at another.

Another key component for what makes the program possible is backing from administration and how they philosophically look at the relationship between those in the jail and the community outside of it.

"They are going to be my neighbor, your neighbor, our neighbor," Chief Deputy Darin Durfey said.

Mr. Durfey sees the time these prisoners have within the jail as an opportunity to correct behavior and provide skills and hope for the inmates. This corrective behavior is aimed at helping inmates not only when they are in jail, but also when they are on the outside.

All of the corrections officers are realistic and explain that they know that not every problem will be fixed in the culinary program, but motivation of the program continues to improve the jail.

"It is about why we are here and when you pass that on, you get the buy in from the inmates," Jones said.

Utilizing a philosophy that promotes behavior change aims to benefit the inmates, the officers, and the community.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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