From Quentin to the Kitchen: Preparing for Life After Prison in the Bay Area

13 min
Ron Simmons puts on his chef's coat before the fifth graduation dinner of Quentin Cooks at San Quentin State Prison on May 22, 2019. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Formerly incarcerated people who can’t find work within the first year of their release face a 52 percent chance of returning to prison. Those who do find work have a better chance of staying out.

"Coming out, it’s kind of hard having to ask people for a second chance," said Joel McCarter, who was released from San Quentin State Prison in 2017. While serving time there, he enrolled in one of the many rehabilitation and transitional programs at the state prison — Quentin Cooks.

The 12-week culinary class teaches inmates kitchen and cooking skills. It also helps them get certified to work in the food service industry, so they can apply for jobs and work when they get out of prison. The program has held five 12-week sessions since it was started in 2016 by baker Helaine “Lainy” Melnitzer and Lisa Dombroski, who is a former chef. The two noticed a worker shortage in the Bay Area food industry, and thought a culinary training class for inmates could help.

Kerry Rudd (center) and Aaron Tillis (right) prepare and cook shrimp for the fifth graduation dinner of the Quentin Cooks program on May 22, 2019.
Kerry Rudd (center) and Aaron Tillis (right) prepare and cook shrimp for the fifth graduation dinner of the Quentin Cooks program on May 22, 2019. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

"We need employment and people won't judge them for their past and their tattoos," said Melnitzer.

After going through the course, McCarter landed a job at Smoke Berkeley, a barbecue joint in the East Bay.  He visited inmates at San Quentin recently during one of the program's graduating dinner sessions to tell others about how he's been able to transition with the program's help.

Joel McCarter, a graduate of the Quentin Cooks program at San Quentin State Prison, now works at Smoke Berkeley.
Joel McCarter, a graduate of the Quentin Cooks program at San Quentin State Prison, now works at Smoke Berkeley. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

"We don't care about your past. As long as you're able and willing to come to work, there's a job for you," he said. "They give everybody hope and let them know that we don't have to go back to our crazy ways. There are other opportunities out there for us now."

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But there are challenges that rehabilitation and transitional programs can’t prepare you for; that is, the shock of being released into a Bay Area that looks and feels very different from the one you left.

"Every other block was a tent city, and that was mind blowing," McCarter said about being back in Oakland after prison. "I have never thought I would see that in Oakland."

Restaurant employers in the Bay Area are struggling to keep talent around because of the high cost of housing. More and more, people who work in the food service industry are finding it difficult to live near their jobs.

The building that houses Smoke Berkeley, where McCarter works, has since been sold. The restaurant's owner says they have until July 31 to leave the property, and what will happen of McCarter's job is now unclear.

Alvis Taylor shows off his ServSafe Food Handler's Certificate which comes in his diploma for graduation from the Quentin Cooks culinary program at San Quentin State Prison on May 22, 2019.
Alvis Taylor shows off his ServSafe Food Handler's Certificate which comes in his diploma for graduation from the Quentin Cooks culinary program at San Quentin State Prison on May 22, 2019. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Read more about Quentin Cooks and see photos of the participants in Mary Franklin's story. Click the "listen" button above to hear this story in podcast form, or find The Bay on your favorite podcast app.

Subscribe to The Bay to hear more local, Bay Area stories like this one. New episodes are released Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 3 a.m.  Find The Bay on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, NPR One, or via Alexa

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