What It's Like to Dine at a Prison Restaurant
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you’re eating dinner in jail. To keep people out of jail.
Smoked apple and blue cheese mousse. A glazed lamb fillet. And servers with a criminal record. Welcome to the world of felon fry-ups, where convict chefs serve epicurean delights to a public obsessed with illicit undertakings. Over the last few years several restaurants have started operating from prisons, catering to a clientele of adrenaline foodies. They come for the rush and the novelty — and stay for the food.
Chris Moore, CEO of the Clink Charity UK, has been creating prison restaurant experiences since 2009, with the goal of bringing down the reoffending rate. Currently a large number of inmates return to prison after being released — an estimated 47 percent per year in the U.K. and 67.8 percent (within three years) in the U.S. By offering inmates job training for post-prison life, Moore hopes to keep them out of jail.
It’s not exactly a normal dining experience. Your fingerprints might be taken. And you might be strip-searched.
In 2009 Moore opened the Clink Restaurant, the first “fine dining” prison restaurant in the U.K. It proved so popular — both with diners and inmates clamoring to work there — that two more restaurants were opened. And in April 2015, the Clink Restaurant at HMP Styal — a women’s only prison restaurant — opened in Cheshire. Prisoners work 40-hour weeks at the Clink, taking on multiple roles: waiter, chef, host. And the scheme is working: Reoffending rates for his program are 12.5 percent — 34.5 percent lower than the national average.
Good for the inmates, but it’s not exactly a normal dining experience. First off, diners must provide a photo ID, which is checked at the door. “It’s like an airport security-style chain to go in and out,” Moore said. Your fingerprints might be taken. And you’re submitting to a potential strip search (if deemed necessary) and a high level of scrutiny. But this invasiveness is part of the appeal, especially in a world that obsesses over Prison Break and Orange Is the New Black. The U.S. has prison restaurants too. The Northeastern Correctional Center opened the Fife and Drum in Massachusetts more than 20 years ago, serving low-cost lunches to the public as part of its culinary program. “The food was average at best,” Peter Sward, writer of the Daily Lunch, told OZY after a recent visit. On the menu: Caesar salad, lemon chicken soup and a pork chop. “Salad was OK. Pork was overcooked.” He called the service good, at least. For him, the appeal was the novelty — and the $3.21 check.
Other countries have joined the trend. Italians have upmarket felon-foodie fiefdom Cene Galeotte, where meals start at $45. In South Africa you can dine at the restaurant at Pollsmoor Prison, where Nelson Mandela was housed. In June 2014, Delhi’s infamous Tihar Jail opened a public cafeteria, offering traditional Indian fare — samosas, lassi and thali — for under $2. Tripta Dhawan, a teacher at the Art of Living (which focuses on personal development for inmates), says the restaurants give the convicts something to look forward to. It engages them physically, Dhawan says, “and helps establish a link between their prison life and the outside world.” But not everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Professor Kapil Kumar, who authored a paper titled “Convict Heritage Tourism,” says that prisoners as tourist destination isn’t healthy. He notes that prison-based entertainment is growing — where the inmates themselves are part of the spectacle — and is concerned that it panders to people attracted to crime.
He has a point, but for many, the benefits outweigh the risks. “Even if 10 percent reoffend,” Moore says, his restaurants are keeping 450 a year out of prison. Which may make the concept a little easier to swallow.