Inmates at Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston shape dough into rolls. Five inmates are participating in the prison’s baking program, which gives them a marketable skill and teaches responsibility. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“All sorrows are less with bread.”  — Miguel de Cervantes

 

The burly inmate at the Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston is the first to admit that he’s struggled with behavioral problems while serving his time. During the past 17 years, Steven Cronk says, he’s been out of prison for just six weeks. Being inside for long stretches, he says, makes him “flip out.” He got used to being written up every week.

“I had a problem with holding myself hostage if I didn’t get my way all the time,” he said, referring to incidents where he would hold a razor blade to his own throat.

Then, about four months ago, Cronk started baking in the prison’s kitchen. He hasn’t been written up since.

“It gives me something to do during the day,” he said. “It keeps my mind off things.”

The baking program at Mountain View, founded three years ago by Mark McBrine, who is both a farmer and the prison’s food service manager, has not only given inmates like Cronk a more positive outlook, it has provided the prison population with a more nutritious, whole-grain alternative to purchased bread and has saved the institution a lot of money – $140,000 last year alone. Prisoners who go through the program gain practical skills they can use once they rejoin society.

“Money’s important, but I hear from offenders who have left here who talk about what they have learned, what Mark has taught them,” said Jeff Morin, superintendent of the minimum- and medium-security prison. “It’s not just a kitchen. It’s a classroom.”

On a recent weekday, the five inmates who make the bread at Mountain View showed off their skills in the prison kitchen, which looks like any other commercial kitchen except when the occasional guard wanders through, radio squawking. Dressed in chefs’ white jackets and bakers’ hats, they stood in front of a long table covered with samples of the baked goods they make for their fellow inmates every day: English muffins, hamburger buns, banana bread, pita bread, rolls, wheat bread, oatmeal bread, garlic bread, sub rolls and traditional New England hot dog buns. And, oh yes, herb-flecked pizza crust topped with pepperoni, green peppers, mushrooms and mozzarella, a treat the bakers say is “coveted” by inmates and staff alike.

MULTIPLE BENEFITS

Brian McBrine, food services director at Mountain View, started the baking program some three years ago. The baker/inmates make all the bread, and related items, that they and their fellow inmates eat. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

It all began with the hamburger buns, made from McBrine’s mother’s recipe. McBrine, 57, and his wife have owned Vine and Branch Farm in Bangor for more than 20 years. When they started selling their grass-fed beef at farmers markets, they’d hand out samples on the homemade buns.

“A lot of times, we’d have people more excited about the hamburger bun than the beef,” McBrine said.

McBrine took that recipe and turned it into a multi-purpose dough that could feed the 425 prisoners at the facility. He buys his flour at a discount from Maine Grains, a mill down the road in Skowhegan that specializes in locally grown grains.

Amber Lambke, president of Maine Grains, has visited Mountain View to see what McBrine is doing and calls it “brilliant.” She’s especially excited that he is able to make use of Maine Grain’s “run of the mill” flour, a byproduct of the milling operation that includes wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt.

“It is the flour that comes off the stones in the first few minutes of turning the machines on in the day, and also the flour that comes from flushing the stones between rounds of different kinds of grain,” Lambke explained. “What would otherwise be waste is made available at low cost to Mark and his team for this program, and we’re thrilled about it.”

McBrine started the program by training two inmates who had shown some initiative. They didn’t seem to mind getting up at 4:30 a.m. to help open the kitchen, and liked spending long days working there, doing everything from washing dishes to preparing meals. “They were the type that, no matter what needed to be done, they pitched in to try to be helpful and showed that they were wanting to be part of a team,” he said.

If an inmate makes the baking staff, he can potentially earn more than he would in other prison jobs. The starting pay for a kitchen job is 50 cents an hour, the same as for other jobs at the prison, but the best bakers – the ones who work longer at it and are given more responsibility – may end up making a couple dollars an hour, McBrine said.

“Most of our bakers would earn more than other positions,” he said, “and they would be equal to some of the top (inmate) positions at facility.”

When it nears time for the bakers to be released, McBrine has them train their own replacements, so “they actually have some supervisory skills.”

BETTER TREATS, AND CHEAPER, TOO

For the first two weeks after he started the program, McBrine kept purchased bread on hand in case something went wrong. And, of course, mistakes were made. An inmate added sugar instead of salt to a dough, or baking soda instead of baking powder. McBrine said he knows an inmate finally feels comfortable in the kitchen when he starts asking “So, what else could we make?”

What else? How about bagels and big, soft pretzels? Every Monday, the inmates have spaghetti or lasagna for dinner, so they started making garlic bread. The English muffins came about as an alternative to ordinary, boring toast to go with the usual weekend breakfast of eggs, sausage and home fries. “When you’re in prison,” McBrine says, “different’s pretty good.”

They try to do something special for holidays, such as the cherry Danish they made one Christmas with cherries picked from the prison’s 7 1/2-acre orchard. On July 4, McBrine taught them how to bake biscuits for strawberry shortcake.

Nothing is wasted. Bananas that are starting to brown are used for banana bread. Leftover breakfast oatmeal goes into the dough for oatmeal bread. They even save bread crumbs. McBrine found a food distributor with a contract to cut haddock fillets for use in high-end restaurants. The distributor trims the fish and freezes the trim in 30-pound blocks. McBrine buys the trim for 95 cents a pound, lays it out in big trays, then covers it with a white sauce and bread crumbs made from the bread the inmates have baked.

The inmates, McBrine said, are “getting a haddock product that’s cheaper than the fish sticks they’re used to. I don’t know of too many prisons where you’re going to get baked stuffed haddock.”

Inmate Steven Cronk, who works in the baking program, separates sections of dough to make hamburger rolls. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Such intentional frugality saves dough – the other kind, that is. Take the sub sandwich rolls, the kind the inmates used the day we visited to make roast beef subs. The state contract price for a sub roll is 22 cents. McBrine and his staff can make them for $0.058, or about a nickel each. Multiply those savings by one lunch service for 425 people, and the baker-inmates are saving taxpayers $68.85 on that meal alone.

McBrine has used some of the savings to upgrade the kitchen, buying, for example, a machine that can process apples from the orchard and up to 2,200 pounds of potatoes an hour – diced for soup, shredded for hash browns, or cut into fries.

Since launching the baking staff, McBrine has started composting and gardening programs at Mountain View as well. (He previously helped plan the composting program at the Maine State Prison.) The garden is across the road from the prison, on land leased from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, and grows organic lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, beets, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, bok choy, zucchini, summer squash and onions. More than 100,000 pound of apples and vegetables were harvested last year and used to feed the inmates at Mountain View. McBrine also switched to buying local farm eggs, which he says cost a fifth of what Mountain View was paying for frozen, liquid eggs.

But it’s the investment in people that may pay off long term. Inmate Brian Hutchinson said he’s worked in several restaurants over the years and has been trained in restaurant sanitation practices, but he never did any baking on the outside. It is, he said, “definitely a possibility” that he will use his prison experience as a stepping stone to a job when he is released.

Scott McGuire, an inmate who is going through Mountain View’s substance abuse program, says he’d never given baking a second thought until he started working in the facility’s kitchen a month and a half ago. The work, he said, has given him “a sense of purpose.”

“When you’re in prison, you don’t feel like you’re accomplishing much,” he said.

Banana bread is one of the many  products baked by inmates in the program. Finished hamburger buns are in the background. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Most of the baker-inmates like to be in the kitchen so much they come in on their day off, McBrine said. One inmate didn’t miss a day of work in 18 months. They say they like having the opportunity to create something new, which others can then try and appreciate, McBrine said. “People come up to them and say ‘Those rolls you made the other day? Those were unreal!'” he said. “They feel like they’ve done something meaningful then.”

McBrine himself plays an important role in the inmates’ lives. A former inmate – McBrine declined to identify him – who had been incarcerated in three different states wrote Morin a letter last spring praising the program. He wrote that he feels he has better employment prospects “all because I have a boss who cares,” referring to his time working under McBrine. “Seeing this man care at this capacity has made me feel like a valued employee, a better person, and not just another DOC number,” the letter continued.

Cronk said that his baking job has taught him more than timeliness and job skills. It’s shown him how essential it is to think of other people’s needs.

“It’s like a big family,” he said. “If one of us has health issues, then other people step up and help. It’s nice.”

“I think it teaches them a lot of responsibility,” McBrine said. “A lot of these guys have never been responsible for much in their life. This has been a good learning experience.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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