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A recipe for success: N.M. inmates get a taste of new culinary training program at prison

Renowned chef Fernando Ruiz, a three-time Food Network champion, is leading an eight-week culinary training course for inmates at the Penitentiary of New Mexico

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By Daniel J. Chacón
The Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE, N.M. — Inside the Penitentiary of New Mexico, Miguel Tapia is breaking out of his comfort zone.

Tapia, who is serving a 15-month prison sentence for a parole violation stemming from a robbery conviction, said he’s “used to seeing the sidewalk,” or living life aimlessly with no real goals in mind.

But in recent weeks, a new culinary training program that includes lessons on how to get a job after inmates leave prison has given the Albuquerque native a new lease on life.

“It’s opening a different part of my vision,” said Tapia, 48. “I’m starting to see the different colors in the spectrum.”

Renowned chef Fernando Ruiz, a three-time Food Network champion, is leading the eight-week course through the recently launched Entrepreneurial Institute of Northern New Mexico, which he co-founded with Ralph Martinez, a community activist in Española, and Jamai Blivin, founder and CEO of the Santa Fe -based workforce development nonprofit Innovate+Educate.

For Ruiz and Martinez, the reentry program, part of a push to build inmates’ confidence and help them reintegrate after they get out of prison, is deeply personal. The pair know firsthand what it’s like to be on the inside.

Ruiz spent four years behind bars, and Martinez is a former addict who was in and out of jail.

“Chef and I both know how easy it can be to fall into a situation and how hard it can be to get out of that situation,” Martinez said. “But we also know the healing that comes along with piecing your life back together, and that’s the message we want to give. That’s the focus of it all.”

“Like I tell Ralph all the time, ‘We have to help,’ ” Ruiz said, adding he, too, has had a helping hand, including recently as he prepares to open his new restaurant, Escondido, at Santa Fe’s El Camino Crossing community off Agua Fría Street.

“I don’t know half of the logistics of a liquor license and permits and all that,” he said. “If people are helping us, we have to help people.”

Life lessons

The curriculum for the course is primarily hands-on work in the kitchen and ends with the nine participants tasting the fruits of their labor. During a recent class, the inmates learned how to butcher lamb. On Thursday, they prepared quesabirria tacos. The inmates are allowed to use knives, which are tethered to a table, and all kitchen tools have to be accounted for by the end of the course.

“There’s not a lot of book work involved,” Ruiz said. “There’s some culinary math involved, which I’m pretty passionate about now — I wasn’t in the beginning because I’m not good with numbers.”

While the chuck roast for the quesabirria tacos cooked Thursday and a savory smell emanated from the kitchen, Blivin and Ryan Dimas of Innovate+Educate led the participants through a “pro skills” section of the course in a nearby classroom that included a lesson on how to dress for a job interview — “Dress like you’re going to court,” Ruiz suggested — and how to write a résumé.

When inmates questioned how to address gaps in work history during their time behind bars, Haven Scogin , the Department of Corrections’ deputy director of reentry, told them to include the work they did during their incarceration and list the state of New Mexico as their employer.

“You guys work for the state, and you don’t even know it,” Ruiz quipped, generating laughter in the classroom.

Martinez said he and Ruiz have been able to develop a “stronger connection” to the inmates because of their lived experiences.

“I think they matter a lot, a lot, when you’re talking with somebody who is in that current situation,” he said.

Ruiz said statistics show a large percentage of inmates are likely to reoffend and end up back in prison.

“Statistics say that you’ll be back within X amount of time,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to try to break. Everybody that comes out of this curriculum, I don’t want to see anybody go back. That’s my goal. Statistics say, realistically, that’s not possible. But I want it to be possible. We have to do it. We have to figure it out.”

Ruiz and Martinez have said more than a dozen restaurants in Santa Fe County and Española have agreed to hire candidates who complete the program.

What do your policies say about inmate releases and continuity of care following the release from custody? In the video below, risk management expert and Lexipol co-founder Gordon Graham outlines considerations around inmate releases from jail and continuity of care:

‘Digging into it’

Martinez said he met Ruiz in 2019 at a community event he hosted to raise money for scholarships, and they continued to work together since then on various projects, from distributing care boxes during the coronavirus pandemic to launching a Secret Santa initiative for families in need.

About 2 1/2 years ago, Ruiz proposed developing a culinary class for inmates getting out of prison to help them become productive members of society, he said.

“I said, ‘You know what? That is a beautiful idea,’ ” Martinez recalled. “We just started talking more and more in-depth about the who, what, when, why, where — and how, especially, was the big one, and that’s when we thought about Jamai [from Innovate+Educate] because we had been working with Jamai on a lot of the different projects that we did.”

Martinez said the group immediately kicked into high gear.

“We just really started digging into it,” he said, adding it took about two years to get the program off the ground.

“There was a lot of puzzle pieces that needed to be done, so we did it diligently,” he said.

After approaching a number of lawmakers for funding, Rep. Andrea Romero , D- Santa Fe , agreed to help out, he said.

“She said that she wanted to be a part of this great venture and so she allocated $75,000 in junior bill funding for us to be able to launch the program,” he said, referring to state capital outlay legislation.

Innovate+Educate, which provides the skills training, funded the business plan to get the first program started. Funding for program in the penitentiary is coming through the state Department of Workforce Solutions’ federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, or WIOA for short.

” Andrea Romero’s [funding] was super important because we needed a pilot before the state would invest, before the workforce dollars,” Blivin said.

“Our ultimate goal was to get it into the penitentiary,” Martinez said. “But we didn’t know how realistic that was, right? So, there was a lot of networking and connecting and meeting and phone calls and emails and, you know, piecing the puzzle together.”

Amid ongoing discussions with the Corrections Department , Ruiz and Martinez launched the program for formerly incarcerated and at-risk individuals in April. The idea was to accept 15 people for the first class.

“Within 24 hours, we had 23 people sign up,” Martinez said, adding he and Ruiz decided not to turn anyone away and accepted all 23 applicants.

“We said, ‘Once we finish with the April cohort, we’ll jump right into the penitentiary,’ because we didn’t want to waste any time,” he said. “We’re in week No. 3 as we speak in the New Mexico State Penitentiary , and things are going phenomenal.”

They are, indeed.

Building confidence

“From the first class to now, it’s like night and day,” Warden Chelsea White said as she observed the nine inmates enthusiastically preparing the ingredients for quesabirria tacos, from puréeing cilantro for a salsa to carefully gliding red cabbage through a mandolin slicer.

“I haven’t seen this guy smile so much,” she said, referring to Tapia.

“Look at him. He didn’t say two words. He didn’t smile,” she said.

White said the inmates in the program are now more comfortable with themselves, and it has given them a sense of pride.

“I think you can see them kind of blossom. Also, their confidence has risen,” she said.

“It’s only been a few weeks, but their attitudes have adjusted,” White added. “It’s a privilege to be in this class, so they’re holding themselves to a higher standard in order to maintain being able to participate in these types of programs. But then they’re also showing the rest of the population something that they can look forward to” by participating in a future class.

Ralph Lucero, a deputy warden, said the participants “love” the program.

“They keep telling me every time that this is the best program that they’ve ever had in their lives, and a lot of these guys have done a lot of prison time, so to say that this is the best program in their whole careers in prison says something,” he said. “It just amazes me how important this class is to them.”

Lucero said the class is usually held Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. When Memorial Day fell on a Monday and no class was held, the inmates expressed disappointment and questioned whether there would be a make-up. He credits Ruiz and Martinez with the inmates’ interest.

” Mr. Ruiz and Mr. Martinez are from their hoods. They lived their lives, so they respect them a lot more,” he said. “When they tell them to do something, they hear it better than if it comes from an authority figure. This program works because of them. If it wasn’t for Mr. Martinez and Mr. Ruiz , these inmates wouldn’t be that vested.”

White believes the program will help keep the participants out of prison once they’re released. To participate, inmates must have a record of good conduct and 18 months or less remaining until their release.

“If you show people that they can be better, do better, and you get them to even believe in themselves, it’s a game changer,” she said.

Martinez recalled a recent class in which one of the inmates couldn’t believe how good his salsa tasted after following Ruiz’s instructions.

“Just the light in his eyes, the smile on his face and the twinkle in his eyes, it’s amazing to see that hope instilled in their heart and soul,” he said.


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