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Utah County Jail culinary program develops skills and more

PROVO — 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," said Larry Hunter, food service administrator for the program.

In January 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 it has had. 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 re-entering society and to find a job.

The culinary 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," 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 the best they can, they give us respect and treat us like we're just working a normal job," participant Andres Torres said.

Focusing on the behavior of the inmates has been a staple of the program since the beginning. Lt. Jeff Jones, 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," Jones said.

Deputy Jason Heidel, the food service manager, takes this philosophy very personally. 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 Utah County Jail on the back.

Heidel tells them all "if you want to act like an inmate, there is a place you can go. If you want to be a worker, there is a place for you in the kitchen." T

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.

Worker Joe Byington echoes that education and camaraderie come with participation in the program.

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

Sgt. James Baldwin, of the jail industries program, believes that the religious and family background of many of the inmates contributes to the success. But he noted that what may work at one jail, may not work at another.

Another key component for what makes the program possible how jail administrators look at the relationship between those in the jail and the community outside of it.

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

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.