Just before noon on a rainy Wednesday in February, about a dozen women in hairnets and plastic gloves prepared a meal for the masses. The kitchen crew was tasked with cooking enough chicken patties, steamed vegetables and fresh-baked cornbread for nearly 900 hungry men and women.
The cooks didn’t wear floral aprons or starched chef’s jackets. In the industrial kitchen on Oglethorpe Street, the women also kneaded biscuit dough and buttered baking tins in white collared shirts with three words printed in bold letters across the back: “Bibb Co. Jail.”
At the Bibb County Jail in Macon, female inmates run the kitchen.
It’s better that way, said Sheriff David Davis.
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“I’m not trying to sound sexist or anything, but the women do seem to keep the area cleaner, are more disciplined and follow the instructions better,” he said.
Until recently, male inmates prepared the jail’s meals each day. They also washed the jail’s laundry. About three years ago, the sheriff decided to hand those responsibilities over to female inmates, who have fewer opportunities to work while incarcerated than their male counterparts.
Women make up only about 10 percent to 15 percent of the county jail’s population on a given day, Davis said. But they are the fastest growing demographic in jails across the country. The number of female inmates in jails grew 14-fold between 1970 and 2014, according to a 2016 report by the Vera Institute of Justice. Jails have struggled to keep up.
“There can be fewer opportunities for women when it comes to employment but also programs and services in jail, because there are fewer women than men, typically, in a county jail. So it can be easier for staff to make those activities available to men,” said Elizabeth Swavola, a senior program associate at the Vera Institute of Justice, who contributed to the report.
Male inmates at the Bibb County Jail can choose from a handful of jobs both inside and outside of the facility, Davis said. Many clear vacant lots, collect trash and wash cars.
Female inmates are not assigned to those jobs. Davis worries such tasks would be too physically demanding.
“It’s not to say that we wouldn’t consider it. But, you know, the opportunities really haven’t arisen,” Davis said. “So that’s why we sorta seized on this chance with the laundry and the kitchen inside the jail.”
It’s important for inmates to have opportunities to work, he said. Georgia inmates aren’t paid for their labor, but they can earn community services hours or days off their sentence.
Jobs provide a distraction, Davis said.
“It gives them something to do rather than just sitting in the cell block all day long twiddling their thumbs,” he said.
Inmates without daily work assignments can watch TV, make phone calls or socialize in the jail’s day rooms. With so many unstructured hours, though, it can be hard to fill the time.
“As that old adage goes, ‘An idle mind is a devil’s workshop,’” Davis said. “So, if they’re not engaged in some type of activities, whether it’s, you know, counseling opportunities or opportunities to work while they’re in the jail, it gives them time to think up mischief.”
Boredom can also weigh on inmates’ self-esteem, he said.
“If you let somebody sit in a jail cell and you don’t allow them to contribute to what’s going on in the facility, they can feel like that nobody cares about ‘em. They can feel worthless and useless,” he said. “So, we give them some value. Give ‘em some activity.”
‘It makes you feel good about yourself’
The jail kitchen bustled with activity as a dozen inmates prepared dinner Wednesday afternoon.
While the kitchen crew cooked for the 872 inmates in the jail that day, one inmate maneuvered through a maze of counters and kitchen equipment with grace. The head cook, who was not allowed to share her name, shuffled back and forth in her bright orange plastic flip flops as she loaded trays of breaded chicken into an oven so tall it nearly reached the ceiling.
The cook mostly keeps to herself in the back of the kitchen. With nearly 1,000 meals to prepare each day, it’s easier to get the job done when she stays out of others’ way, she said.
The inmate first learned to cook when she was 11 years old. She grew up in a big family and is used to cooking for a crowd.
“Not for quite this many people, but, you know, I got the hang of it pretty quickly,” she said.
The cook starts her shift around 10:30 a.m. with a quick cleaning of her station. For the next eight to nine hours, she bakes, steams, mixes and fries.
It’s tiring work, the inmate said. By the time she gets in bed for the night, she usually falls right to sleep.
But the cook is grateful for her job in the kitchen.
She hopes the experience she’s gained will help her find employment upon her release. One of her supervisors has even offered to write her a letter of recommendation.
“Under these circumstances, I wish it wasn’t like that. But I am glad that there’s a lot of places that could use somebody that could cook for 1,000 people,” she said. “And so, it’s been a blessing and a curse at the same time.”
The inmate takes pride in her work.
“It does feel good to have people come up and say, ‘Oh, dinner is a lot better. The flavor’s good,’” she said. “It makes you feel good about yourself. Because when you’re in jail, anything to make you feel better about yourself is a good day.”
Preparation for life after jail
Conditions in the kitchen have drastically improved since female inmates took over, said Deputy Balencia Collins, who oversees the cooking crew.
The women keep their work stations cleaner and get along better than male inmates she used to supervise, she said. And the amount of contraband moving through the kitchen has all but disappeared.
The jail wouldn’t function without the inmates who work in the kitchen, Davis said.
“If we didn’t have inmates doing it, we’d either have to have more deputies doing it, or we’d have to hire more outside people to come in, which would be a significant burden on the taxpayer,” he said. “So, if you really look at it, it really is a money saving situation for us, because every one of these jobs have to be done. And if we’re able to use inmate labor to do it at no cost, then we’re saving the bottom line.”
Davis also hopes the work experience will help inmates secure employment when they’re back outside.
The jail cooks don’t complete a formal cooking curriculum, Davis said, but they do receive on-the-job training in things like food safety. Several local restaurants have hired former inmates who once worked in the jail’s kitchen, he said.
“Many of your meals are cooked by former inmates at many of the restaurants around town,” Davis said. “And some of what they learned, they learned here.”
Swavola of the Vera Institute of Justice wonders if jails will start to make more jobs available to female inmates as their proportion of the jail population grows.
“When they get to jail, they’re encountering a system that was designed for the majority of people there, which is men,” she said. “That can really disadvantage them while they’re there and when they are returning back in the community. So, it’s really important that there are equal opportunities for women.”
Deputy Collins knows the inmates she supervises appreciate the opportunity to work. For many, she said, it’s their first real job.
“When they come in here, they get the experience of getting up every morning, coming to a job,” Collins said. “It prepares them for the outside.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.