Kapiolani Community College has offered courses to women at the Women’s Community Correctional Facility since 2008.

The test kitchen in this local culinary program is probably a bit different than you might imagine.

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Chef knives are connected by cables to the lone long table in the room and locked in a cage within a locked room at night. Everyday tools, including pencils to take notes, are guarded and need to be checked out. These students do not have open access to the internet, like others would for watching videos of cooking techniques or gathering tips on novel ingredients. 

Simple recipes that include alcohol need to be reworked with a doupe that can recreate the depth of flavor that alcohol provides but not the potential for causing intoxication. The ovens do not always work, nor does the van used to transport food and equipment. But the program gives its students an opportunity to turn their lives around.

Every semester, between three and 12 inmates become culinary students in this program administered through Kapiolani Community College and funded by the state Department of Safety. It also has support from the state’s Attorney General and the department chair of Culinary Arts at KCC. 

Kapiolani Community College offers culinary courses to about a dozen Oahu inmates each semester. Above, a recent class enjoys food they cooked during a graduation ceremony. (Courtesy: Lee Shinsato)

A large majority of prisons have educational programs for inmates, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report. Although, only 26.7% of prisons offer educational classes for college credit, like the KCC Culinary Arts program.

The investment has been paying off, and the program’s success has led the state to open a similar kitchen at the men’s Waiawa Correctional Facility.

The programs come at a time where community college enrollment in Hawaii is decreasing while restaurant workers remain in high demand and in short supply. Since this program’s beginning, starting in 2008, the goal for it is to fill those gaps as well as reduce recidivism rates — referring to the likelihood of a person returning to prison after their initial release — in the state’s Women’s Community Correctional Center. 

Corrections facilities on Oahu the highest rate of recidivism in the state at 64.4% according to the Department of the Attorney General Crime Prevention and Justice Assistance Division. The national average is more than 20% lower at 41%.

Knife And Life Skills

Before every class, KCC chef instructor Lee Shinsato picks up groceries on the way to the women’s prison.

“My goal for the program, it’s not necessarily to teach them how to cook, which is what I’m supposed to do, but I always say my goal is to turn out a better human being,” Shinsato said. “On campus, it’s different. My goal is not to make better human beings, it’s just to train you to cook so you can get out there and get a job.”

Shinsato said the classes are technically taught the same way as they would be on campus, with just more emphasis on life skills in the down time. The students learn proper knife cuts, reasons for cutting foods certain ways, how to assess cooking temperatures, food safety and sanitation. 

One of these classes is called “American Sustainable Cuisine.” It focuses on food from different regions of the country to show students different types of food. 

Shinsato recently made chicken with a creamy mushroom supreme sauce, he said, and the students were shocked at how delicious the meal was. None had ever eaten it before. Shinsato said he responded with, “It’s just chicken, guys!” 

Kapiolani Community College Campus.
The cooking courses are run out of Kapiolani Community College, although instructors make visits to corrections facilities participating in the program. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Most students in the program were reared in the state. They enjoy local food, but Shinsato also  wants to broaden their culinary horizons. 

“Everybody’s mom cooked something. Everybody has something that they smell and reminds them of their mom, their grandma,” Shinsato said. “Everybody’s gotta eat. Food is real, it’s good, and it’s a good tool to reach somebody.”

The program at Waiawa offers the students chef jackets which offers a source of pride. 

“Once the jacket comes on in class, we’re like the perfect citizens,” Shinsato said. “We change how we walk, how we talk.” 

Students who have finished the program and re-entered society have gone one to finish their education through University of Hawaii and worked for local restaurants. Even if students do not wish to continue their culinary studies, they have knowledge of nutrition and food they can use in everyday life. 

“I think [my students] are just tired of the lifestyle and they’re tired of being naughty, they want to do more and a lot of them have kids too, they want the apples to fall a little farther from the tree,” Shinsato said. “They’re so grateful that they finally have somebody who believes in them… I learned that these people they’re human beings and they either made a mistake, or they weren’t dealt the same deck of cards that the rest of us were.”

Earning Credit

There is a graduation ceremony held at the end of the semester where the inmates can invite two people to enjoy their culinary creations that feed anywhere between 50 and 90 people. The next men’s graduation will be in June, the women’s will be in December. 

The goal is to eventually allow inmates to build their grade point average and earn credits that would appear on college transcripts, which could make access to education and jobs much easier when they are out of prison. 

Louise Pagotto, a retired chancellor of KCC, attended the most-recent graduation ceremony. The meal was prepared by three students graduating from the program as well as a few inmates who previously graduated but were still incarcerated.

Pagotto emphasized the importance of earning at least some college credit.

“People who have some college credit have better socioeconomic outcomes,” Pagotto said. “Their health is better. They live longer. They earn more. So those first steps have a big impact. … Achieving some college credit, while incarcerated, puts them on a path towards the very first beginning steps of a better life.” 

“Once the jacket comes on in class, we’re like the perfect citizens. We change how we walk, how we talk.” 

Lee shinsato

During the graduation ceremony meal, for safety and security reasons, the participants ate with paper plates and plastic utensils, but Pagotto said the mood was positive.

Earning college credit builds  hope in the students, said Grant Isomitsu, department chair of the Culinary Arts Department at KCC. 

“I think this is just one way of just offering, you know, college credit, offering a certificate as well as building confidence,” Isomitsu said. 

Even though classes are held in the prison, , Shinsato said he tells his students that they are “not an inmate for the next six hours, you’re a University of Hawaii student.”

Attendance has never been an issue, and Shinsato jokingly calls his students at the facilities a “captured audience,” which he said creates a tendency for the students to be both engaged and motivated. 

To date, one former student was hired at 53 by the Sea, a fine-dining restaurant on the waterfront in Honolulu. Other students have been hired by Big City Diner.

Yet, Shinsato would like more funding for the program. He wants his students to feel valued and as a reward, would love to be able to provide all of the students with chef jackets and skullcaps. 

“When you put on that jacket, it’s a big deal for us… a big source of pride,” Shinsato said.

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