Four University of Louisiana at Lafayette hospitality management seniors traded the school’s popular Lunch Club for the jailhouse Tuesday, working alongside inmate chefs in the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center kitchen to feed roughly 1,000 inmates and Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office staff members.
The experience is part of a new partnership between UL’s hospitality management department and the sheriff’s office. Sheriff’s department dietitian Dr. Jennifer Jackson organized the internship program; the four students will visit the correctional center twice more, learning about the cooking, planning, prep work and ordering that goes into preparing three meals a day at the jail, she said.
The correctional center offers similar internship programs for nursing, social work and dietitian students. Jackson said she’s worked with students from UL, Tulane University and McNeese State University in recent years. The institutional setting is unlike any they’ve likely experienced, she said.
The kitchen is located down a hallway sealed with controlled lock doors, with a red line in the center of the floor demarcating where offenders may walk and signs urging inmates to remain quiet. In the kitchen, knives are secured on a tether to worktables and numbered for inventory.
Beyond the extra security, it’s like any kitchen. It’s a steamy, bustling place where cooks work hard, just on a much larger scale.
Thirty inmates work in shifts alongside 15 sheriff’s office staff members to cook three meals a day for between 800 and 1,000 people at the correctional center and the sheriff’s office’s other facilities, Lt. Bridgette Patin, who oversees maintenance and food service, said.
On Tuesday, UL hospitality students prepared mashed potatoes and vegetables to accompany the day’s meatloaf. Kelu Archbold, 24, chopped sausage and helped slice and cook an estimated 480 pounds of chicken for a Wednesday gumbo.
Archbold has worked in food service for seven years and said she’s never seen an operation the scale of the LPCC’s. At UL’s Lunch Club, a senior capstone class where students operate an on-campus restaurant, students only serve about 40 people at a time, she said.
“This is a whole different experience,” Archbold said. “It was really surprising. The amount of food we were prepping, I was like wow, that’s a lot of food for a lot of people.”
The senior hopes to work in the hotel industry after graduation and said learning how to prepare and serve food at the scale LPCC does was a great introduction to skills she’ll need after graduation. Archbold said working with the inmates was also a humbling experience.
Chad Williams, the head inmate chef, said he gets a kick out of students visiting the kitchen. He tries to give them a laugh by joking about offering encouraging words to his food and pots while cooking. Laughs aside, Williams said he tries to give the students his best and communicates to them the hard work and passion needed to make a career in the food industry work.
On Tuesday he worked alongside UL student Chris Smith, instructing him how to cook and manage the mashed potatoes while handling 40-gallon tilting skillets. Williams said he was impressed by Smith’s discernment, his willingness to ask questions and his great work.
The inmate said it feels good that even though they come from different places, he can use his knowledge and experiences to benefit the students.
“I’m glad to be in the position where I can inspire somebody to keep on pushing or to take that extra step to do better at what they want to do,” he said.
Williams has worked in the kitchen for the past six years and said he’s learned discipline, marketable job skills and how to relate to this fellow inmates and others better. Before joining the kitchen, Williams said he wasn’t passionate about his job but now he loves coming to work every day.
He feels filled with purpose and is constantly pushing himself to bring his best to the table each day, he said. Williams will appear before the parole board this year and is hoping that soon he’ll be able to leave the correctional center.
When he does, the 45-year-old will walk out with ServSafe food handler and manager certifications he earned while incarcerated, certifications the UL students also work toward. Williams said he’s proud of how hard he’s worked and looks forward to showing potential employers what he accomplished during his time in prison.
“This is what I’ve been doing with my time. This is what I bettered myself at. This is where I think I’ve got a desire and I think I could do this. I feel like I can handle myself even better than I could before because I’ve got reason and a purpose now,” Williams said.
Jackson began the certification programs in 2017. She hosts a course on safe food handling each month to train new workers rotating into the kitchen about food safety and sanitation. The course lasts four hours and is accompanied by a test. While the handling course is required, the management course is optional and is offered to inmates interested in advancing their education and job prospects.
The dietitian said the educational opportunities are critical. The goal of a correctional environment is to correct conduct and underlying behavior so that when offenders rejoin society, they can be productive and successful like their peers.
“I don’t know what their charges are because it doesn’t matter. All I know is when Chad leaves, because everybody leaves, he’s going to need a job. That job is going to take care of him, take care of his family and it’s going to keep him out of here. How do you get a job? You have to have education,” she said.
Jackson said the inmates’ education extends into sharing their experiences with student interns. When interns arrive, the dietitian said she prefers the inmates to lead the conversations, explain to students their roles in the kitchen and how to properly handle the work and anticipate kitchen needs.
It’s also an emotional and mental boost for the inmates. Few people know or care about what they’re doing and being asked about their jobs and looked to for guidance is humanizing and makes them feel good about themselves, she said.
“It’s learning to just treat people as people,” Jackson said.
“Right now, all I see are two cooks,” she said, gesturing to Williams and Smith as the two men prepared mashed potatoes.