This Christmas season, 12 prisoners at the Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City have been busy baking and making gingerbread houses and large batches of cookies for various charitable events.
Mary Connell, the director of the culinary arts program, said the college-level classes require students to complete 360 hours of courses to pass a certification test that will allow them to work once they leave prison.
"We do everything from soups to breakfast foods," she said. "They have to taste everything that they make. They know that if it doesn't go over with them, then others probably won't like it either."
In the cooking lab, offenders not only learn the basics of meal planning, food preparation and presentation but also about waiting tables and other skills that prepare them for jobs in the food-service industry.
Participants plan meals and assemble cookbooks they take with them upon release. One offender, who will be released soon and return home to his daughter, has collected child-friendly recipes she can help him prepare.
Some offenders who go through the training can go on to work in the local Department of Corrections cook-chill facility, where meals are prepared in batches then frozen and sent to DOC dining halls throughout the state. It's the same system used at restaurants such as Applebee's, so some offenders come out of the program fully trained for jobs with major restaurant chains.
"I have a background in the culinary field, so this helps me keep up my skills so I'm ready to go when I get out," inmate Stephen Lewellen said.
During cooking labs, the classroom space is set up like a restaurant, and staff are invited to dine there.
"I'm a little hard on them, but that's OK because they need to make sure they take care in how they prepare meals," Connell said.
The culinary arts program is part of larger adult basic education program that includes business technology, auto repair, carpentry and cosmetology.
"Right now, there is a truck driver shortage across the country, and many of those companies have started coming here to try and recruit some of our soon-to-be released offenders who are trained and qualified to come work for them," Corrections Department spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said.
"I do care about these guys," Connell said. "It's always great to hear about those that have gotten out and have been able to get in the field."