Lime Green Jackets, Fried Green Tomatoes and the Sweet Taste of Hope
One Cuyahoga County Reentry Program Has It All
Authors: Mary Kelley, Program Officer
Without question, going to prison is a life changing event. The disruptive effects go far beyond the people being sent away. Their absence affects families, friends, employers, and ultimately, the community as a whole.
It is possible for that life change to lead to positive results. The Cuyahoga County Office of Reentry is dedicated to contributing to positive changes in the lives of returning citizens so that we may all thrive, together.
The United States of America incarcerates more people than any other county in the world. Fully 25% of the world’s prison population lives in the United States. Currently, Ohio has more than 50,500 people in prison – more than the entire prison population of Canada. One state! Out of 88 counties in Ohio, ours continues to send the largest number of people to prison and receives the largest number back. You might be thinking, “not in my backyard – not in my community.” The fact is that citizens return from jails and prison back to every community in Cuyahoga County. Statistics show that fully 95% of incarcerated people will eventually be released.
Many returning citizens face real barriers to successful reentry. They have served their time but come home to find that the sentence lasts forever in the form of severely limited resources and opportunities combined with the shame and stigma of a criminal record.
“Chopping for Change”
The female prison population is skyrocketing across the United States and in Ohio. In1974, the number of women in Ohio’s prisons was 291. Today there are 4,300. Statistics show that women are coming to prison at a much faster rate than men, mostly for non-violent drug and property crimes. Many have experienced abuse and trauma in their lives. More than 80% are mothers.
In partnership with Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry (LMM) and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, The Cuyahoga County Office of Reentry started an initiative dedicated to women that aligns with County Executive Armond Budish’s vision to more closely combine Health and Human Services programs with Workforce Development.
Chopping for Change is an intensive 24-week culinary training and life skills program that participants begin before they are released. The first 12 weeks includes a variety of topics covering past trauma, communication and conflict management, anger management, substance abuse, parenting classes, and developing interview and job retention skills in a supportive group environment. The second 12 weeks takes place in the kitchen. Participants learn every aspect of how to work successfully as a team in a kitchen and earn a “Serv Safe” certification credential. Upon graduating, all participants have case management and follow-up services available to them for as long as they are needed. So far, 7 participants have graduated, 15 are currently in class and another 15 are waiting to begin.
“Who comes to prison to fulfill their dreams?”
I stopped in to the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry’s Central Kitchen to see Chopping for Change in action. Chef Laura, the instructor, cheerfully told me that it was “Fry Week.”
The ladies were everywhere in their custom lime green chef coats and hats. Bowls of batter lined the countertops as the ladies chopped a variety of food, dipping it in batter and flour and then dropping it into oil. They fried potatoes, corn, macaroni and cheese, pickles, green beans, Brussels sprouts, onions, and, of course – green tomatoes. I asked if they were going to fry some pineapple slices lying on a cutting board nearby.
“We thought about it!” someone laughed.
I asked the women about their participation in the program and what meant the most to them. First, Chopping for Change gives the women an opportunity to give back to those less fortunate. The food preparation work that they do, the “chopping” part, counts towards fulfilling required community service hours because the Central Kitchen prepares daily meals for many different homeless shelters in Cuyahoga County.
They cater meals that are bought by inmate charitable groups that, in turn, donate the proceeds. The women are tasked with every aspect of the catering jobs – from pricing, preparing and serving food – to setting it up and making sure guests are treated to a visually attractive and tasty meal.
The “change” part shows itself in the personal and professional growth of the women involved. Like everyone else who accomplishes a job well done, the women take pride in their work. Here are some of their comments:
“I didn’t realize how closed off I became during my time,” one participant said. “I appreciate coming here [to LMM] and being treated like a human being – an equal person.”
“It’s good to know there are people from my own community who want to see a change. We appreciate it. Everyone makes mistakes. We are working hard to become better than we were.”
“Some people think that all we’re doing here is sitting around eating food. This is a 13-14 hour work day. We still have to do our regular prison jobs and responsibilities and then come here and work another full day. I’m working harder now in prison than I ever worked outside.”
“I always dreamed of working in my own restaurant. This program is giving me the skills to do it someday. I am so grateful to be able to do Chopping for Change. Who comes to prison to fulfill their dreams?”
LMM will operate a Women’s Clothing Resource Center at their Sering Center beginning before the end of this year. Women will be able select clothing and personal care items. LMM expects to begin serving about 30 women every month.
The Cuyahoga County Office of Reentry currently funds 8 additional programs, most notably the Comprehensive Reentry Services at the County Jail. Comprehensive Reentry Services is a voluntary pre and post release employment and job readiness program for male adult individuals serving court sentences at the Euclid facility.
The program is focused on not only providing services that include substance abuse issues, adult basic education and high school equivalency classes and testing, and a full job readiness and placement menu that is linked to the Ohio Means Jobs statewide system but training in culinary services so that they can pursue a career after they are released.
If you or someone you know needs help in adjusting to their new life after jail or prison – there is hope and help available. There are lots of different reentry resources in Cuyahoga County. To find out more, visit the Office of Reentry’s website at www.reentry.cuyahogacounty.us or call 2-1-1 First Call for Help. The North Star Reentry Resource Center One-Stop Shop is located at 1834 E. 55th Street in Cleveland. Their phone number is 216-881-5440.