crime and nourishment

James Borrowdale reports on two prison initiatives to rehabilitate inmates through food.

When you hear the words “prison” and “food” in the same sentence, you most probably think of a nameless gruel slopped into a metal tray by a man in an apron so besmirched it no longer has any claim on the colour white, a soggy half cigar glued to his bottom lip, poking out from below a salt ’n’ pepper moustache. What probably doesn’t come to mind is, say, buttermilk poached chicken ballotine, scallop tortellini, or kumara and potato terrine.

Yet these dishes, among many others, are exactly what you would have found on the menu, curated and cooked by inmates, had you attended the Rimutaka Prison Gate to Plate event, which recently concluded its run of three dinners at Rimutaka Prison. Part of the Visa Wellington on a Plate festival, this year marked the event’s fourth incarnation, with renowned chef Martin Bosley on board as a mentor since year one. Initially sceptical about the concept, Bosley soon came around: “I became passionate about it, and then I became obsessional about it.”

Bosley, who says he still struggles to articulate how rewarding he finds the volunteer work, has seen profound progress in the men, all prisoners serving 12 to 18 years – “which gives you some indication of their crimes” – he has mentored. Of the original six men in the programme, one has been paroled and now works in a kitchen, and two others are on release to work, both in kitchens – with one of them offered an apprenticeship after only 10 days. And no wonder. “These guys are doing food of an absolute gastronomic level.”

Bosley says that part of the failure of the prison system in this country is that people tend not to give prisoners a chance even after they have ostensibly repaid their debt to society, and that breaking down walls – getting communities to engage with prisoners and vice versa – is a vital element of the Gate to Plate programme. With this, prisoners’ prospects after release improve. “A man who can earn some money and feed his family tends not to reoffend,” he says.

A similar instinct is driving things at Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility in Manukau: since 2014 inmates have staffed the Auckland District Court cafe. Prison director Cheryl Mikaere says getting prisoners preparing and serving food to the community has myriad benefits. “It gives them a sense of achievement, it lifts their self-esteem and it gives them communication skills with community members. One of my wahine said it’s absolutely neat to go out into the cafe and be a real person for the time that they’re out there.”

There are, of course, security measures in place: prisoners work under the supervision of a Corrections staff member and have had to undergo rigorous screening before being approved. Mikaere notes that there hasn’t been a single incident in the prison kitchen, where prisoners are taught their skills before moving onto the cafe at the District Court. Not that the public has ever shown anything resembling concern. “I was there a couple of weeks ago and it’s very similar to the cafe we have here on site – we have the Inside Out cafe – and we have workers from down the road from us who come in and patronise our cafe and the wahine who serve are treated as though they are at a cafe in the community. It shows there are a wide range of people in the community who see the progress our wahine are making and are absolutely supportive of that.”

And the food? Mikaere eats at Inside Out “every day”. “It’s absolutely brilliant. I’ve received written and verbal feedback from customers who are not employed by the Department of Corrections that is absolutely positive – great customer service, great food.”

We have all felt the simple pleasures of preparing a meal – the communal aspect of cooking and eating together, the sense of achievement – and one can only imagine how much these basic feelings must be amplified inside dreary prison walls. It is something Martin Bosley doesn’t have to imagine. “We have changed men’s lives here. The outcomes have been profound. The prisoners recognise that, the officers recognise that… We’ve changed them through food.”