Prison program cooks up opportunity for inmates

By Christopher Zoukis

America likes to play with its food. Chopped, Food Network Star, Cutthroat Kitchen – there is no shortage of entertainment on television when it comes to mixing ingredients and drama together.

For the inmates of Folsom Women’s Facility, however, food has an entirely different meaning. It’s not about fun, drama or competition. It’s about opportunity, new beginnings and self-esteem.

Folsom Women’s Facility (in Folsom State Prison) recently saw 11 women graduate from its intensive 10-month culinary arts program. The course is taught by Cosumnes River College as one of the California Prison Industry Authority Career Technical Education (CALPIA- CTE) programs. The graduates learn much more than how to prepare food. They learn accredited job skills and attain a greater chance of employment and success upon release.

The culinary program exposes participants to all aspects of restaurant life, from cooking to serving to restaurant management. “The women will receive a culinary college certificate and receive college credit from this program,” said Jason Doolittle, adjunct professor, executive chef, and one of the teachers in the program. “We taught them everything from base management principles, cooking, using the kitchen equipment correctly, front and back-of-the-house service, to proper sanitation methods.”

One of the inmates that took the program at Folsom was Cherish Velez. She was serving in the kitchen because she loved to cook, and when the culinary program became a reality for the female inmates, she signed right up. Velez says “learning basic cooking techniques, team work, proper sanitation and how to use the equipment” were highlights of the program, and her favorite thing to make is risotto, in honor of her Italian heritage and love of Italian food. Upon release, Velez plans to become a chef.

The culinary program at Folsom Women’s Facility is on point for supplying a needed skill. America’s restaurant industry boasts an average of 980,000 locations with more than $660 billion in sales (4 percent of the U.S. GDP). It employs over 13 million people. In California alone, graduates of the prison program can join the 1,475,100 restaurant employees that make up 10 percent of the state’s workforce.

There won’t be a shortage of jobs either, with growth projected to be 1,615,600 employees in the restaurant industry by 2023. California generates more than $67 billion in restaurant revenue, with every dollar spend in the industry generating $1.16 to benefit the economy. CALPIA-CTE’s tapping into the successful and growing restaurant industry and creating a prison program to help released inmates take advantage of it is a great way to help them get into the workforce while doing something they enjoy. The skills they learn are practical, sustainable, and give them careers with real future potential.

The culinary CALPIA-CTE program in Folsom has proven to be a success, and it’s not the only program of its kind in the state of California. Prison education under this program also includes commercial driving, computer-aided design (CAD), computer coding, facilities maintenance, ironworking, pre-apprentice construction labor and pre-apprentice carpentry.

Prison education programs are necessary for reducing recidivism and creating a more positive and proactive environment both within and outside of the penal system. When educational programs are targeted and paced with actual employment needs, the programs and the students are sure to be much more successful.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at and