With plastic tables stocked with salt, pepper, squeeze-bottle ketchup and Frisch's place mats, the River City cafeteria resembles an ordinary school lunchroom. Friendly expressions on faces and an orderly, respectful atmosphere make it even easier to forget that, in fact, it's part of a prison.
The mission of the River City Correctional Center, which opened in 1998, is to assist felons in restructuring their values through education, vocational training and practical life skills.
A board of judges of the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court oversees the facility, built on the site of the Civil War-era Cincinnati Workhouse.
Not just doing time
Instead of a chain gang, River City uses practical work preparation, including the Culinary Arts Program (CAP), a partnership with Frisch's Restaurants. CAP gives training and promises employment to anyone who completes the program.
No violent offenders are allowed. After completing a minimum of 124 hours of training, including classroom and kitchen work, as well as passing a computer test, prisoners can apply to any local Frisch's restaurant and work any available shift until their release.
"We don't call them 'inmates,' " says Lamont Taylor, the liaison between applicants and Frisch's restaurants. "We call them 'residents.' "
River City holds up to 200 prisoners at a time, with three pods for men and one for women.
Seventy percent of people who apply are rejected, according to Taylor.
The training is meant to reproduce, as accurately as possible, the same training all Frisch's employees receive, down to the kitchen equipment. Each morning prisoners place their lunch orders, choosing from a list of six sandwiches, french fries and onion rings.
"When they're released, they're guaranteed a job," Taylor says. "This year we've hired 34 from River City. The residents who live out of the city, they can get a job where they live. The goal of the program is not just community outreach in making people job-ready, we offer employment as well."
The River City kitchen looks like the back of any other well-run restaurant: clean and fast. The salty-sweet smell of onion rings mingles with the hiss of burgers frying on the griddle. Meanwhile french fries are scooped into trays and sandwiches are prepped in white Styrofoam boxes.
A round, red Frisch's clock adorns the dining chambers. Even the red and beige design on the linoleum floors is reminiscent of Big Boy's checkered pants.
On the way out of the cafeteria, Taylor spots a familiar face.
"You coming back to Frisch's?" he asks.
"Yes," the woman replies, "I left in good standing."
Pod C, the women's section, gives the impression of a boarding school recreational area, with a fish tank, snack machines, lockers, TV and VCR, tables with checkers and solitaire and a storage room filled with games and athletic equipment. Handmade decorations hang from the walls, with sayings such as, "The only certainty in life is change" and "Celebrate diversity."
Valencia Rucker entered River City in September and started with CAP in October. She has completed 230 hours of training and has begun her application process. She hopes to work at Golden Corral, a Frisch's affiliate.
"I love their carrot cake," she says. "Unfortunately, I can't have it because I'm diabetic. I can have a little bit though."
Rucker, 49, has worked in food service for 32 years. Even so, she says CAP was very educational.
"I don't call it 'doing time,' " Rucker says. "I call it doing a skill-based program."
Sally Mault, 39, of Portsmouth, Ohio, agrees.
"In class, we learned about safety, mathematics, hazards, food costs, quality service," she says. "I've learned more here than during 19 years at Bob Evans. I was a manager in the (River City) kitchen. We treated it like a restaurant. My goal is to get back on my feet and apply for a grant to open my own restaurant. This has been nothing but a blessing to me."
A second chance
The program has benefits beyond employment training.
"There is no secret that I had a drug problem," Rucker says. "This program has raised my self-esteem. I know I can go out there and get a job and not be ashamed of my age. I'll just be an older woman starting a new job."
Rucker describes her fascination with a training computer, which has a touch-screen program that visually walks through kitchen procedures. She would get up early to sneak a few lessons while other residents were taking their showers.
"I was determined," Rucker says. "I just had to have that computer. I want to go back in and learn that strawberry pie."
Both of the women say they enjoy having structure.
"There's a better way to live," Mault says. "I have more structure and feel more confident with myself."
Rucker says she began using illegal drugs about 30 years ago.
"Some days I stole out of stores to get what I needed," she says. "My first job with benefits paid $2.10 an hour. I've been up and down. I worked to use and I used to work. Now I'm ready to get out there. I feel good. We exercise every day. I've lost 28 pounds since being here. I'm ready to enter society as a mature adult and productive citizen. I haven't felt this way in a long time."
Most of the prisoners at River City are convicted of drug abuse or drug-related crimes, according to Piper Sauter, a River City staff member who works closely with Taylor.
"We believe the behavior relates to lack of discipline growing up," Sauter says.
After staying four to six months at River City, prisoners must complete an aftercare program. This includes a weekly meeting, alcohol or drug support groups and finding a job. She says that River City is a means to divert some offenders from conventional prisons when what they really need is a second chance, Sauter says.
"We use a lot of positive reinforcement," she says.
CAP has been useful for Frisch's, too, according to Karen Maier, the company's vice president for marketing. When the economy is strong, fewer people apply for restaurant jobs, she says. CAP provides a pool of personnel already trained in Frisch's operations.
"You give them a second chance, and sometimes that's all they need," she says. ©