CMC inmates trade crime for cooking with the help of a Cuesta class

Terrence Watkins, a 33-year-old from San Diego, is serving a 13-year sentence at California Men’s Colony on a robbery and firearms conviction that will keep him locked up through 2020.

But when he gets out, he won’t be empty-handed. He’ll leave with a recipe for success outside and new skills to help him get a job.

Watkins is one of 20 inmates — black, white and Hispanic — who graduated Friday from a new culinary arts partnership offered by Cuesta College at the San Luis Obispo prison.

The inmates are among the prison’s population of nonviolent offenders, convicted of crimes such as drug trafficking, burglary, driving under the influence and fraud.

They learn a range of skills — how to handle professional equipment, keep a kitchen clean and sanitized, and prepare complex dishes for large groups. To practice, the group has been cooking nightly weekday dinners for 210 inmates under the guidance of Cuesta faculty.

“Instead of cooking dope, we’re cooking really good food,” Watkins said with a wide grin.

“This program has truly humbled me,” he added. “I know that when I get out, I’ll be able to accomplish something and have a job and a career. And I’ll be able to cook something nice for the ladies, too.”

Over the past seven weeks, the inmates have learned to cook a wide variety of dishes — lasagna, meatballs, Thai curry, chocolate cake, ginger orange beef and enchiladas.

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Sherman August, back, and Marc Collier prepare the batter for a flourless chocolate cake as part of the California Men’s Colony’s new culinary arts program. The prison graduated its first class of cooking students on Friday. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A special lunch

On Friday, they were tasked with cooking a lunch for dining room full of dignitaries, among them Cuesta College administrators, Cal Fire officials and CMC’s management, including warden Josephine Gastelo.

The menu featured oven-barbecued brisket, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, green bean and mushroom stir-fry, coleslaw, and caramel-glazed apple cake.

“I’ve tried it, and the food these guys make is really good,” said Monica Ayon, CMC’s public information officer. “The other inmates have gotten to enjoy some really good cooking.”

Thirty-seven year old Arland Shores of San Fernando Valley is awaiting release in two months, when he’ll get to see his 8-month-old baby. He has been in prison for 11 months for receiving stolen property. When he gets out, he’ll be facing a third strike if he’s caught breaking the law again.

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Inmate Javier Davalos separates egg yolks and whites for a flourless chocolate cake. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

He has vowed to never go back to prison, and he’s considering applying for a job at Homeboy Bakery in the Los Angeles area, a business known for providing jobs to former prisoners and gang members.

“I want to own my own bakery someday,” Shores said. “I just love baking.”

The CMC group’s full days in the West Camp kitchen conclude after they’ve prepped, cooked, served and cleaned up. They eat when everybody else has finished. They cook Monday through Friday and get breaks on weekends when the food their camp eats comes from the prison’s main kitchen, which serves the prison’s 4,100 inmates.

Safety first

Precautions are taken in the kitchen to prevent violence. Long knives are tethered to food-prep tables. Cooking tools are carefully documented and returned to hooks in a locked room that’s inventoried by the instructors at the end of the shift.

So far, no major incidents have occurred other than occasional kitchen tensions.

“These guys want to be here, and this program has been really successful so far,” said Lt. Trad Eilers, who monitors the crew. “If they weren’t in the kitchen, they’d be out in the yard. Here, they stay out of trouble.”

An inmate with tattoos inked on his shaved head who would only identify himself at “Inmate No. 1” told The Tribune that the group of 20 has learned to collaborate and look beyond their ethnic differences.

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A cooking instructor from Cuesta College advises California Men’s Colony students in the prison’s new culinary arts program. The prison graduated its first class of cooking students on Friday. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

“What I’ve noticed is that inmates of different ethnicities are talking to each other a lot more,” the prisoner said. “And that even is happening a little more in the yard. Somebody will say, ‘Hey, that was a (expletive) good burrito you made last night.’”

In addition to earning a culinary arts certificate in the class, the inmates also get four weeks off their sentence. Two more classes of 20 each are scheduled to take the course this academic year.

Despite the popularity of the program, and opportunities, some things don’t change, even behind bars.

“I hate washing dishes,” Watkins said. “I’d rather do just about anything else. I’d rather clean up tables than washing dishes.”

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