CARTAGENA, Colombia – On a humid summer night in the heart of Cartagena, the ominous front doors of the San Diego Women’s Prison swing open, not to admit new inmates, but to welcome customers hungry for an unusual dining experience.
This is El Restaurante Interno, a gourmet restaurant housed within the prison and staffed by inmates. A sign reading “second chances” frames the entrance, and inmates-turned-waitresses clad in colorful headwraps stand by with notebooks in hand, ready to serve guests.
Under pink tassels and low-hanging canopies, the servers bring out plates of coconut-crusted shrimp served with local root vegetables grown in the prison’s garden, and traditional tri-tip sirloin steaks laid on beds of brown coconut rice. The roar of cumbia music and laughter transforms the low-security facility from a prison into a fine-dining venue.
El Restaurante Interno was opened last December by Fundacion Accion Interna, a charity created by Colombian actor Johana Bahamon that supports rehabilitation programs for the country’s neglected prison population.
Female inmates are sent to San Diego, a low-security prison, to complete the final months of their sentences before they’re released. Most serve time for drug trafficking, extortion, theft and in a few cases, murder.
“The mission,” Bahamon said, “is for these women to have the tools they need to prepare them for freedom, so that they can return in a dignified way.”
Investing in Prison Life
All of San Diego’s 180 inmates have been professionally trained by celebrity chefs, such as Koldo Miranda and Henry Sasson, in how to create three-course meals and how to provide the same kind of customer service experience to be found at one of the five-star hotels a few blocks away. Some 25 inmates work the kitchen and greet guests, while others try their hand in the garden or bakery.
“The 25 inmates are chosen according to who’s closer to freedom,” Bahamon explained. The idea is to give inmates at the end of their sentences the best chance to transition back into society, and hopefully employment. “But there is a constant rotation. All of them are involved in some way or another.”
Bahamon says the profit made from the restaurant is reinvested in improving the quality of life of the prison population.
Women make up about 7 percent of Colombia’s prison population, according to World Prison Brief, a worldwide prison system database. For many, life behind bars means overwhelmingly poor infrastructure and little access to healthcare.
In 2013, the Colombian government recognized that the majority of women’s prisons lacked gynecologists. Many prisoners today continue to face difficulties from poor ventilation, overtaxed sanitary systems and a lack of blankets, clothing and mattresses, the report states.
Overcrowding is all too common in Colombian prisons. Reports from the country’s National Penitentiary Institute and Ombudsman’s Office show that the 137 prisons across the nation hold more than 120,000 inmates, when they were only designed to accommodate a little over 78,000. That’s an occupation rate of over 150 percent.
Since El Interno has opened in San Diego, the prison has been able to renovate its living spaces, bringing in a computer room, library and garden, and allotting each inmate her own bed, a simple luxury with which many were unfamiliar prior to last December.
Stories of Redemption
El Interno has already received a lot of attention, bringing in guests such as famous singer and songwriter Carlos Vives and most recently, the country’s president, Juan Manuel Santos. Its success has provided a chance for incarcerated women to share their stories.
Some of the restaurant’s staff are no longer inmates. Yackelin Granados, a 33-year-old sous-chef, says staying involved with the initiative after the end of her sentence was her best option.
“I liked the idea of staying,” she said. “I just got my freedom three days ago, but I came back today and asked them if I could help in the kitchen. They said yes, gave me my uniform, and I picked up the everyday routine again.”
On her first night back on the job, the foundation approached Granados about setting up a juice stand in the front of the restaurant for her to run.
“They completely surprised me with the juice stand,” she said. “I’ll be selling natural juices, frappes and jewelry and backpacks that my friends make on the inside.”
Once the stand is up and running in the coming months, Granados said she will use some of the proceeds to support her 14-year-old son through school, but in the spirit of “second chances,” Granados will reinvest in the program by returning the profit made from the crafts she sells back to the inmates and their families.
“I used to think nobody would want to hire me once I left,” Granados said. “I would think ‘That’s it, I’ve lost my job, I’ve lost everything.’ I never thought I would leave this place having any kind of opportunity. I am so grateful to them.”