Chefs behind bars
The inmates who work in the kitchen at Baffin Correctional Centre are not only contributing to society, they are learning skills to help themselves get ahead after release
The door clicks behind Ray Lovell as he moves from the lobby of the Baffin Correctional Centre into a hallway leading to the facility’s cafeteria. He stands in front of the next set of locked doors and waits for a guard in the control room to buzz him through.
Lovell is the food services manager for Nunavut’s Department of Justice, and works in the kitchen at BCC. He spends about 44 hours a week working with inmates, training them to prepare food for the prison population, as well as Iqaluit’s soup kitchen.
“The nickname of this place is the Hotel California,” Lovell says, leading the way through the cafeteria to the locked door of the kitchen. “You can check in, but you can’t check out.”
Lovell, a trained chef who has worked in hotels and restaurants around the world, joined the staff at the facility about a year ago.
“I could see making a difference,” he says. “It was prison food at its best — beans and wieners and very little in the way of fruits and vegetables.”
Lovell joins another kitchen staff member and four inmates to make soup and sandwiches for the city’s soup kitchen. They began preparing food for Iqaluit’s needy last month. The Monday-to-Friday ritual includes hot meals twice a week.
Nora Sanders, Nunavut’s deputy minister of Justice, encouraged Lovell to get the inmates involved with the soup kitchen.
“I think it’s so valuable for the inmates to have an opportunity to help others in a way that is so much needed,” she says. “These guys have all committed a crime, they’ve all been sentenced to serve time, but it’s great if they can have a way of trying in some small way to start giving back and this is that.”
Windows in the wall separating the kitchen and the cafeteria allow interaction between kitchen staff and the prison population. But the kitchen windows that allow inmates in the kitchen to see outside are covered in wire. Heat from the convection oven makes the small room quite hot, but it can’t be helped, Lovell explains.
“Let’s face it, you can’t open the windows,” he says.
As in the outside world, everything in the prison revolves around the kitchen, Lovell says. But here, life is run on a strict schedule, and inmates tend to get restless if their meals aren’t prepared and served on time.
A young man in a purple T-shirt and navy blue cook hat smiles from behind shelves loaded with boxes of condiments. Lovell introduces Jay (his full name cannot be used), who is happy to talk while he works.
Jay has been training for about a month and says working in the kitchen has taught him valuable skills.
“It’s good because it gives you something to look forward to [after release],” he says. “You learn how to make small salads and cook and serve at the same time. Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s OK once you get the hang of it.”
Jay is asked to prepare coffee for the inmates working on the town crew and disappears to complete his task.
When an inmate enters BCC, he is interviewed by a classification officer to find out what his skills are. The information is used to decide where he is best suited to work while within the walls of the facility.
“Some guys don’t like getting up in the morning,” Lovell says. “So I always put the new guys on in the morning.” The inmates are paid $7 each day for their work in the kitchen, which entails a morning or evening shift.
“Boredom’s a big thing here,” he says. “Inmates will sleep a lot — not because they’re tired, but because when they’re dreaming, they’re not here.”
After lunch, a different crew of inmates scurries about in the kitchen — some washing dishes, others chopping zucchini for a batch of steamed vegetables that will be served with the evening’s menu of roast pork and couscous.
Other menu items include a ham and cheese omelette with hash browns and toast and melon cocktail in ginger syrup, and quiche lorraine with sausage links, home fries and toast.
The food may sound extravagant, but portions are small and much is made from scratch, Lovell says.
“Anyone can open a package of soup,” he says, pulling a container of chicken bones from the freezer that will be boiled to make stock.
The GN’s Sanders says the skills the inmates learn at BCC can help them once their sentence has been served.
“They’re going to have to have some kind of a life when they go home,” she says. “Many of them have families to support and if we can help their families by giving them those skills then all the better.”
A small tape player sits on the counter in front of a window. The news was playing earlier, but now a tape blares music through the room.
“They have a free choice of music,” Lovell says. “You can tell what’s going on by the level of music.” When tension is high in the centre, the music volume rises.
An inmate awaiting trial who asked not to be identified stands at the end of a metal countertop. He has his hands deep in a mixture that will become the topping of a crumble.
“I learned from Ray,” he says quietly and continues on to explain what ingredients he is using and the proportions. “I didn’t cook much before. This was all new to me.”
A guard enters the kitchen and takes a formal head count. Lovell says this happens randomly at various times during the day.
“Thank you, sir,” Lovell says as the guard leaves. “I call the guards sir in the kitchen,” he says. It shows respect, and it is how he treats other staff members and the inmates as well. The theory is the inmates will give that respect back.
Although Jay has completed his morning shift, he is back volunteering his time for the evening shift. He is responsible for making the evening’s fruit salad. He takes a pineapple and removes the top and bottom with a large scallop-edged knife.
“The darker the fruit, the sweeter,” he says, explaining the juices tend to gravitate to the bottom, thus making it sweeter and darker in colour.
“Ray taught me that,” he says, smiling.