DRAPER — With the fervor surrounding the relocation of the Utah State Prison, legislators are now debating how and where to place more than 4,000 beds, up-to-date technology and auxiliary services such as classrooms and laundry services.
Not to mention about a dozen tables, a few dozen chairs, a grill and a cash register from the Serving Time Café.
The Serving Time Café is the brainchild of Carolyn Price, a correctional supervisor at the state prison and manager of the café. It serves just about everything one would expect from a café: burgers, fries and salads for those who want to get time for “good behavior.” The dishes are served with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, poking at prison nomenclature, like the “Jailbird Burger.”
All the workers, from the cooks to the cashiers, are inmates at the women’s prison, literally serving time.
First day “Serving Time”
Price was working at a meat processing plant overseeing male inmates who would prepare food for catering events and luncheons. It was there she got the idea she should use the manpower to open a café to provide inmates with an opportunity to interact with the public and gain work experience.
Price asked her supervisor to approve the idea, and before she could say “Order up!” plans were drawn. The Serving Time Café opened Dec. 7, 2009 in a renovated trailer just outside the prison fences, where it’s sat ever since.
Initially, Price had male inmates working the restaurant. But there were issues.
“They kind of messed up for themselves,” she said. “They got into trouble; they had friends bring in drugs for themselves.”
So to avoid future problems, Price asked that only women work in the café, not only as a safety measure but as an added opportunity for them to get out of the fences.
“[The men] have construction; they have a lot of different opportunities,” she said. “This is the only place the women can leave the fences and come to work.”
But it isn’t easy for women to qualify to work in the café. Only nine women can work there at once, though there is a high turnover rate considering most of the women are on their way out of prison.
“To be able to work here, they have to have a clean record from inside,” Price said. “They have to go through an extensive check so they can actually leave the fences and work here.”
Price said decisions are based more off what inmates have done inside prison than what they’ve done before.
“I’ve had girls here who’ve been here for 10 years for all different crimes. We don’t pick and choose,” she said.
It might be assumed Price would be able to have plenty of staff to fill her positions. But because of the stringent qualifications, the café can hardly fill each spot before someone gets parole.
“We’re having a hard time finding girls to work,” she said. “They screen them so well ... for me to find a level-5 that’s eligible to come, it’s a struggle.”
Level-5 is the highest privilege level available to inmates.
Salary and benefits
The café is designed as an opportunity for the women to develop skills to take out in the workplace and build a little money to take with them once they get on the outside.
Brandi Hamblin of Salt Lake City has been working at the café for a few months and said the job has given her a chance to come out ahead once she reintegrates into society.
“It’s allowed me to save up some money before I leave,” Hamblin said. “That’s one thing I don’t have when I leave here. I’ve got nothing. ... For me to be able to go out there and not ask anybody else for anything ... it makes me feel good.”
Hamblin, 24, expects to be released on parole in about two months.
Price said the women make between $1.40 and $1.75 per hour based on their position. They can use that money to pay for fines or save it for when they’ve served their time.
As they work at the café, inmates receive a unique opportunity to be face to face with the public as they take their orders, serve food, handle money and clean.
Julia Higbee has worked at the Serving Time Café for about a year. She said at first working with the public can be frightening. Going back into society is a “shell shock,” and the Serving Time Café minimizes that shock.
“For me ... it’s been a great transition,” she said.
Higbee, 45, was in the prison once before, and when she was released, she said she was overwhelmed and ended up back in prison quickly. Working at the café has made her feel confident she won’t relapse when she’s released on parole in November.
“I feel like I could walk out the doors and work anywhere tomorrow,” she said.
Hamblin said the café provides inmates with decision-making skills as well, as they help Price decide on daily specials and other parts of the menu.
“For me to be able to come here and ... get up and go to work and get in a routine like that, it’s going to be helpful for me when I do leave here,” Hamblin said.
But as with any job, it comes with its own level of stress.
“You find yourself in those little situations,” Hamblin said, “but you’re forced to deal with it here. ... We actually find a solution, which is something that I would never do out there before.”
Menu prices are kept low at the Serving Time Café; only a couple of items actually break the $5 mark.
Menu items often have cheeky names like the “Stakeout Breakfast Bagel” or the “Prison Blues Burger.”
“My new favorite is the Reuben,” Higbee said. “I’ve never really liked pastrami, but I tried one ... but this is my new love.
“I think my favorite is the over-easy BLT,” Hamblin said. “At first I thought that sounds really weird. But I had to try it. ... I was shocked. I loved it.”
It’s a simple sandwich: a traditional BLT with an over-easy egg on it. Different, but delicious, Hamblin said.
Other recommendations through Yelp reviews include the Philly cheesesteak, the Captain Burger and chicken tacos.
Willing to relocate
As an alternate site for the prison is planned, Price said she’s not too worried whether the café will stay or go; she’s certain it’s a staple of the prison.
“I’m not too concerned about it,” she said. “When they came up with this, they asked me if we were going to relocate this, what I would need.”
Price said prison administrators plan to rebuild the café wherever the prison goes.
“Maybe they can make it a little bigger,” Higbee joked.
The current café is slightly cramped, and the line always stretches out the door, often into the parking lot.
Price laughed and told Higbee and Hamblin to think of what they want and write it down now so they can get it.
“If you’re going to ask, you might as well ask for a lot,” Price quipped.
It’s obvious the café is an unparalleled and needed opportunity for the women to develop and build skills desired out in the workforce.
“It almost doesn’t feel like we’re in prison working this job,” Hamblin said. “It’s just like we’re working a regular job.”
“It’s so good for me to have that work ethic I’ve had in here,” Higbee said, “because it’s going to help me out there.”