These inmates Beat Robbie Jester … and they hope to beat the odds

Let’s get this out of the way first. The James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna is a scary place. I was there for 90 minutes very recently, escorted by some very nice, very professional people and a warden who is passionate about preparing inmates for re-entry, but it is unimaginable what it must be like to be there for years and years.

I attended two events this past week with a common theme but held in two very different places. Hanging over both events was the ghost of Matt Haley, the Sussex County restaurateur who died in a motorcycle accident five years ago.

The theme was reducing Delaware’s high recidivism rate of 64.9%.

First up was Ajit Mathew George, hosting more than 300 guests at the dedication of his Second Chances Farm on Nov. 18. There were 13 speakers on the agenda, many of them praising the launch of his vertical-farming program that aims to give former state and federal prisoners a career that will reduce the chance that they will find their way back into the system.

You can read more about the launch and George’s efforts to reduce recidivism in Delaware here, but the joy on the faces of the 17 people who are poised to join the Second Chances Farm team had me excited about heading to Smyrna three days later for a dessert bake-off between Robbie Jester, the High 5 Hospitality chef who has beaten Bobby Flay on The Food Network, and 22 Vaughn inmates who are part of the Matt Haley Culinary Program. Besides Warden Dana Metzger, who was effusive in his praise for the food and in his pride for the inmates, one of the judges was a former Baylor Correctional Institution resident who is a manager at a Pike Creek restaurant less than three years after her release.

Spoiler Alert: Robbie Jester may have beaten Bobby Flay but his cinnamon rolls with pumpkin cream cheese frosting came in second to a five-man team that made a chocolate fudge meringue chemise cake that drove my blood sugars to an unwelcome place.

The secret ingredient? “Heart,” said inmate Trevor, although I was also told by another chef that it was actually the cocoa powder they put in the batter along with dates to suck up the oil.

Delaware is a state where you often hear the hospitality industry talk about the difficulty finding people. Robbie Jester said he “deplores” the idea that it’s tough.

“You get caught in the busy trap,” he said, but he is spending much of his time looking in places others might not be looking.

 “People with a justice-involved background have dedication, gratitude, and a sense of humility,” Jester said. “The regimentation of prison plays a large part, as does an ability to have a solid conversation.”

He talked about a High 5 cook who struggled after getting a job fresh out of prison. The cook asked why he had been demoted from his original role and was told he was too slow and that he should spend more time understanding how other cooks organized their time. Today a refocused Henry is running a station at one of High 5’s restaurants.

Inmate William expects to be released at the end of this week. “Having a program like this means a lot; it’s something to look forward to,” he said. “It’s not just about cooking. I can’t wait to get to class. Getting out scares me; it’s the second time I’ve been in trouble, but the culinary program here has given me a new focus.”

“The program offers both foundational education and food-handler certification, which will help the inmates who are released get jobs in the restaurant industry,” said Sandra Walbee-Warden, who supervises education inside Vaughn. The culinary program is administered by the Delaware Department of Education in partnership with the Department of Correction and includes an advisory committee that includes employers. 

“I’m really proud of Delaware, as I believe it leads in culinary education for corrections,” Delaware Restaurant Association President and CEO Carrie Leishman said. “It is so cool that the training these men and women are receiving is the same curriculum that our ProStart students in the high schools are learning. This program will be the model for the Governor’s Task Force on Re-entry Workforce Committee. Those leaving corrections can qualify for our newly developed registered cook apprentice program and we are working with the state and our National Restaurant Association partners to open Delaware up with the nationally recognized Restaurant Ready pre-apprentice program.”

So, what can businesses across Delaware do to support these efforts? 

      Walbee-Warden has three suggestions:

  • If you own a restaurant, contact Vaughn’s Treatment Administrator Stacy Hollis at [email protected] for more information about joining the advisory committee.
  • Look into the federal tax benefits for hiring returning individuals.
  • Understand that employers can be protected because these individuals are easily bonded.

“The challenges that the industry faces when hiring is not in opportunity but in understanding the barriers that may challenge the successful outcome of someone re-entering communities after incarceration,” Leishman said. “Small businesses are not equipped to be social workers or to provide social services, and need their own support and training so that both the business and re-entry employee are successful.”  

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