A fine dining experience has opened up in an unusual setting: a women’s prison in Cartagena, a city located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Last December, a foundation working to improve conditions within the prison opened a restaurant there where inmates both prepare the food and serve customers. The aim of the restaurant is to help jumpstart the prisoners’ reintegration by giving them life skills and opening up channels of communication between those behind bars and the rest of society.
The restaurant is an initiative run by the Teatro Interno Foundation, which aims to improve the quality of life for inmates in Colombia’s 26 prisons as well as to facilitate their reintegration into society.
"We wanted to give the inmates a second chance”
Teatro Interno co-founder Johana Bahamón and I first started looking into launching a prison restaurant in Colombia last summer after we heard about a similar initiative in Italy. We decided on San Diego prison mainly because of its location — unlike most prisons, which are situated on the outskirts of town, San Diego is right in the centre of Cartagena. It’s really easy for potential customers to access, making it more likely for them to choose it as a dining option.
Last October, we started a series of workshops teaching inmates how to cook certain dishes and pastries as well as how to serve customers. The workshops were open to anyone who wanted to participate. We got the support of several well-established chefs and the government's apprenticeship scheme.
The restaurant is just one part of our work at San Diego. We also offer courses on a wide range of topics including finance, tourism, the hotel industry, how to start a business and how to grow an organic garden.
"This initiative helps construct links between inmates and life outside the prison walls”
Our objective is two-fold. First, the restaurant helps construct links between inmates and life outside the prison walls. This helps soften the shock that some people feel when they are suddenly released back into the outside world. It’s a form of resocialisation. And by offering a wide variety of skills-training and educational workshops, we want to offer inmates a second chance. New skills and options can help them reintegrate into the work force more easily when they leave prison.
The restaurant opened its doors on December 15, 2016. It’s open every night except for Mondays and we can serve up to 50 people a night [Editor’s note: Customers must reserve ahead of time]. In general, four to eight inmates cook while one or two work as waitresses.
The set meal costs 90,000 pesos [Editor’s note: equivalent to 26 euros] and includes an appetiser, a main dish, a dessert and a non-alcoholic drink. We change our menu every six months, but we always feature regional dishes.
"For each day that an inmate works in the restaurant, a day is removed from her sentence"
Even if the price of the set menu seems a bit expensive, the food is very high quality.
Customers should also look at the cost like a donation towards our foundation, which aims to improve the quality of life for inmates in this prison [Editor’s note: San Diego is extremely crowded and is currently at about 150% capacity] and other prisons in the country.
For example, since we launched this initiative, we’ve been able to buy new beds, mattresses, chairs and tables for the prison. Each month, we also give the prisoners’ families about 200,000 pesos [60 euros] in coupons as inmates are not allowed to be given money directly.
Finally, for each day that an inmate works in the restaurant, a day is removed from her sentence. Since we launched the project, we’ve noticed that fights between the women have decreased by between 50 and 60%. We think it is because this work keeps them so busy.