Cooking up a new life behind bars
How an innovative jail program helped an inmate find his purpose and start again
Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson created the IGNITE program in his jail in Flint, Michigan, where inmates access online courses to earn credits toward a GED, learn a skilled trade job or take enrichment courses in everything from American Sign Language to culinary arts, which will help them gain employment after graduation. Once released, many are working in local businesses, including the auto industry and restaurants.
IGNITE, which stands for Inmate Growth Naturally and Intentionally Through Education, is a mechanism for breaking the trend of generational incarceration throughout the county while establishing education and rehabilitation as two main points of focus for the jail.
Since its public launch, the program has enrolled hundreds of students who have completed more than 19,000 hours of coursework and participated in more than 700 standardized tests. Reading comprehension and math skills have improved, and 60% of those who have taken the GED have passed.
The National Sheriffs’ Association is working to offer this program to all jails across the country, with programs already launched in Minneapolis and Charlotte.
By Joe Walker
Until I was arrested, I had never run afoul of the law in my life. Thanks to a groundbreaking inmate education program by Genesee County Sheriff Christopher Swanson, however, only my military experience gave me greater life focus or opened more doors of opportunity.
My one and only arrest happened in November of 2020, but that’s not where my story begins – or ends.
I’m 34 years old and proud to have served six years in the National Guard, including one year in Afghanistan.
I’ve worked continuously all my life in jobs that included home improvement, caring for the elderly and automobile maintenance. I’ve also studied business management and marketing.
Nevertheless, it was not until I got accepted into Sheriff Swanson’s IGNITE program – which stands for Inmate Growth Naturally and Intentionally Through Education – that I found real direction and, I hope, the path to a better future.
My earliest months of incarceration gave me an ugly picture of what jail would be like without programs like IGNITE.
Surrounded by angry, dangerous men in an unfamiliar setting and in the midst of the COVID pandemic, I felt like I was navigating a minefield. It was almost like being in Afghanistan again: a bunch of guys cooped up in a place where they didn’t want to be, everybody afraid to leave their quarters.
I did a lot of thinking during those four months, a lot of reflecting, meditation and writing – and, I have to admit, a lot of sleeping.
Once accepted as a trustee, though, I was able to apply myself working in the Genesee County Jail kitchen, where I started as a dishwasher and soon worked myself up to be a cook, first for regular inmates and, within a month, preparing special diets for diabetics and other inmates on restricted diets.
Gradually, I was making a name for myself among the guards and sheriffs’ deputies – a good name and a good reputation.
Once I was accepted into IGNITE, however, my future path became clear to me.
Ever since my grandmother taught me some of her best kitchen tricks, I have enjoyed cooking. (Even without any formal training, though, I make a grilled nine-ounce sirloin with parmesan cheese, shrimp and broccoli that is as good as anything you’ll get in any restaurant.)
As part of the IGNITE program, I was accepted into IN2WORK, a food service and retail warehouse training regimen for people in jail that is sponsored by the Aramark Corporation.
Having learned the basic kitchen skills during my time as a trustee, IN2WORK furthered my training by teaching me the essentials of kitchen management. Since I never worked in a restaurant or food service facility before, IN2WORK gave me my first real exposure to safely and efficiently managing a large-scale food operation.
The IN2WORK staff treated us as humans, not as criminals. Believe it or not, after months behind bars, something as simple as offering us a cup of coffee during a class break was a major departure that had a profound impact on me.
It was a radical and welcome change to be able to go to class and not be looked at with suspicion.
The IN2WORK teachers took a personal interest in us and made sure we learned each lesson, every step of the way. They brought camaraderie to our classes and made sure that we would make it through the program, together.
Before long, I was scoring at the top of my class and, eventually, my lessons culminated in my receiving the ServSafe certification from the National Restaurant Association as well as the Michigan food manager certification.
It is my hope to use my newfound skills to find work in the hospitality industry and, eventually, I would like to open my own food truck.
When I think of what my life would have been like without Sheriff Swanson’s IGNITE program, I only need to look back on the first four months of my incarceration: hours of boredom punctuated by random acts of brutal violence. I saw the mental and physical deterioration on the part of some of the people around me and realized that’s where my own life was heading.
I was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong person, but as bad as this experience has been, I consider myself blessed that the IGNITE and IN2WORK programs have opened doors for me that will help ensure that my first arrest will be my last.
Joe Walker is awaiting trial on felony domestic violence charges in Flint, Michigan.