What's cooking? Becky Estrada instructs two of her students.
What's cooking? Becky Estrada instructs two of her students.
Tracy Harmon

The Soft Cell

It's lunchtime at Fourmile, one of the state prisons in the Cañon City complex. We're in a small room, at a table set with plastic cutlery and paper napkins. On one wall hangs a row of white chefs' hats and jackets; against another there's a table holding a watermelon carved in the shape of a well, with a handle made of rind and a crank shaped from a piece of carrot, filled with chunks of the fruit. A young man in a blue jumpsuit asks what we'd like to drink, soda or water? It's a blazing-hot day outside, and another man places an electric fan a few feet away from us, facing the wall so that we don't take the blast of cold air full on.

We're served fresh zucchini and corn with cheese, beans, rice, and a sopaipilla stuffed with hamburger meat and enveloped in green chili. For dessert there's a choice of pies: coconut cream and chocolate cheese. I order the latter, but it's too much to finish. I'm shaking my head regretfully -- the first few mouthfuls were delicious -- when someone offers to wrap the rest for me. My companion begins laughing. "I'll bet that's the first time anyone's asked for a doggie bag of prison food," she says.

The men serving us are students in the prison's culinary-arts program.


Not about a Restaurant

They work under Becky Estrada, recruited by the Colorado Department of Corrections from Pueblo Community College, where she taught the subject. "It's harder here because of tool control," she says. "In the morning, we check out all the tools; the knives are tethered to the table. The whole class needs knives."

Her class recently went through its final test: a grand buffet for prison staff. "It was so busy," Estrada says. "A paring knife got lost. We had to lock down the whole place. They strip-searched the guys. The next day they found it in the trash."

This graduating class is her third. Each time, the program starts with fifteen inmates, and "five or seven graduate," she says. Some inmates win release; others are moved to different facilities.

Each class has produced a few excellent cooks, Estrada says. Manuel Atanacio, John Cooper, Kenneth Tafoya and Larry Orona, all students in a previous session, now help the current class members and run the staff cafe. "Cooper has really become interested," Estrada says. "He's thinking about eventually opening his own bakery. He brings in recipes from his mother or grandmother. He made German-chocolate cake for the grand buffet, and everyone wanted more of it."

It was Cooper who made the chocolate cheese pie in my takeout box.

To participate in the culinary-arts program, an inmate must have a high school diploma or GED, pass a math test and have had a clean record for ninety days. The class follows a structured curriculum. The prisoners make meats, fish and poultry. They learn to set up a salad bar and a sandwich station. There's instruction in breakfast cookery, baking, sanitation. "They know what has to be cleaned, what chemicals to use, pest control, state standards," Estrada explains.

"Today they worked on cream pies, cookies, cinnamon rolls and Danish. Yesterday, they made sweetbreads. They cook every morning. In the afternoon, they do their mise en place for the next day and clean the kitchen."

When we've finished eating, she shows us the professional kitchen, with its gleaming freezers and refrigerators.

The inmates get 63 cents a day for their participation. They can taste what they've made, but they eat their regular meals in the chow hall with the rest of the prisoners. Their classwork is sold to prison staff at lunchtime; the money feeds back into the program.

For some inmates, the program has been a sanity saver. Carlo Decristofaro is serving ten years for burglary. Even though his father owns a restaurant-brewery in Denver, he had never cooked before going to prison. "I'm learning a lot -- not just cooking, but about myself," he says. "Things have come into perspective for me... You have to know you're still a person, because sometimes it's hard."

Patrick Martinez, now 63, was imprisoned for vehicular homicide in 1994. He says he was making a legal left turn when a speeding teenager on a motorbike ran into his car, but Martinez had alcohol in his blood and three prior DUIs. Still, the case was sufficiently murky that it took three trials for prosecutors to get a conviction. Martinez was sentenced to a maximum of 24 years. "Almost like a murder charge," he observes. He is eligible for parole in two years.

Martinez has two children, a 25-year-old son and a daughter about to graduate from high school. He'd cooked a little on the outside, he says, but "nothing like we're doing here. I can hardly wait to get out and try all of it for my brothers and sisters.

"At home you can experiment more," he says, warming to his theme. "The hundreds of spices that they have, I want to get those. My daughter said, 'I can't wait for you to get out so I can cook and take care of you.' I said, 'Honey, I'll be teaching you how to cook.'"

"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."

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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