The Soft Cell

The Department of Corrections cooks up a culinary program for prisoners.

"It's a great class," says Semiyon Johnson. He's 23, "grew up in prison," and is currently serving a fifteen-year sentence for aggravated robbery. Johnson didn't have any idea how to cook when he entered the program. "I burned stuff," he admits. "A lot of stuff. Messed up on the recipe. I'd forget an ingredient or put too much in."

He grew up in a home with four women, he explains, and "all the Southern girls know how to cook. Chitterlings, collard greens, pork chops. I think about going home and getting some real food."

But in the meantime, he says, "This is real right here. It tastes real. We made it all from scratch, plus we cook it right. It's always better if you make it yourself, even if nobody else don't think so."

What's cooking? Becky Estrada instructs two of her students.
Tracy Harmon
What's cooking? Becky Estrada instructs two of her students.
Not about a Restaurant

Ronnell Curtis prefers baking to cooking. He likes working with bread dough, "knowing how to form it and get it to the right consistency and make sure it proofs right," he says. "Baking takes a lot of paying attention to, and I enjoy a challenge." After his release, Curtis hopes to find work in a kitchen. "Everyone's gotta eat," he says. "There'll always be jobs."

Calvin Jones likes braiding hair and writing music. Before he came to Fourmile, he had had some restaurant experience -- at McDonald's and as a prep cook at a Holiday Inn. "You got to move real fast," he explains. But now he's making things he'd never eaten before, like zucchini bread. "I thought it was going to be nasty," he says, "but we made it, and it was real good."

He's also learned a new way of frying chicken: "You have to season, dip it in egg, then flour, egg again, fry it." But with all this, he says, it's still nowhere near as good "as the way my mama cooks it."

Jones says he's through with crime. "My son's gonna be eleven in September. I was out for a year and a half of his whole life. I can't keep doing this," he says.

And so he offers a few words of advice: "This is a good learning experience, but don't come to prison just to find that out. You don't get to leave."

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