Friday, August 20, 2010

The Joy, and Freedom, of Cooking

Culinary skills prove transformational for inmates

 BILLERICA — With a laundry list of assault and battery and armed robbery convictions on his criminal record, Brian Moquin, 47, had lost hope.
Moquin came to the Middlesex County House of Correction last year after serving seven years in state prison, where he accumulated more than 80 disciplinary reports and assaulted a prison guard.
With his history of violence and substance abuse, he barely made the cut for the House of Correction’s experimental culinary arts training program in March.
But Moquin, who is scheduled to be released Thursday, surpassed all expectations and was recently offered a job at the Outback Steakhouse in Lowell.
“I was somebody I didn’t like, a monster,’’ Moquin said. “For 30 years, I’ve been a burden to my parents, to my community. Now I want to be an asset.’’
Four years ago, Middlesex County Sheriff James DiPaola piloted a 12-week cooking course accredited through Shawsheen Valley Vocational Technical High School in Billerica. Distressed by high recidivism rates at the House of Correction — almost half of inmates released in 2004 were reconvicted within three years — DiPaola recognized the need to equip inmates with the necessary skills to reenter the workforce.
“Life, like your food, is only as good as what you put into it,’’ DiPaola said. “We wanted to try and transform the negative energy they have when they come in into positive energy.’’
More than 120 inmates, most of whom were convicted of drug-related offenses and serve 2 1/2 years or less, have since graduated from the culinary program. Armed with 12 college credit hours and a ServSafe certificate, a food safety training credential required of most restaurant employees, many have found work-release positions at chain restaurants.
Not enough data are available yet to track reconvictions, but DiPaola estimated a recidivism rate of 10 percent for program graduates. A 2008 study conducted by Northeastern University’s Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research found that Middlesex House of Correction inmates enrolled in programs had a 37 percent reconviction rate within three years of release in 2004 compared to 50 percent reconviction rate for inmates not enrolled in programs.
Known to the inmates as The Deputy, William Bourgeois, a former chef, leads cooking classes with a firm hand and paternal encouragement.
Fighting is not tolerated, and accountability — which Bourgeois defines as their ability to “own up to their mistakes’’ — is drilled into daily instruction.
Cooking utensils are counted before and after class. Knives are tethered to the table, and the inmates are searched before leaving the kitchen.
“I tell them to call me for anything except bail money,’’ said Bourgeois, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.

Read the rest of the story here.

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