The Rikers Coffee Academy: Can teaching prison inmates to make lattes give them a chance at a better future?

Amy Chozick

By Amy Chozick for THE NEW YORK TIMES

  • Published Dec. 27, 2019
Omar Jhury and Joshua Molina, right, at Rikers Island manning the espresso machine.
Omar Jhury and Joshua Molina, right, at Rikers Island manning the espresso machine.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Officer Green wanted her vanilla latte piping hot. “With vanilla on top, not a lot, just a drizzle, and very hot, don’t make it warm,” she shouted to Eddie Rodriguez, who was taking orders. He nodded and wrote Green on the side of a cup. “Don’t worry, I got ya. Extra hot for Officer Green.” Then he slid the cup down the bar where Mr. Rodriguez and the other inmates in the barista training program at the Rikers Island prison complex were adding ice, steaming milk and grinding beans to load into a $3,000 Nuova Simonelli espresso machine.

It was rush hour at the coffee shop that pops up twice daily inside the staff lounge at one of the nation’s most notorious jails. The uniformed guards formed a sea of blue in the dreary institutional lunchroom, with Maury Povich’s talk show playing on an overhead TV and a smell of waffle fries and bleach in the air. They put in their specialty drink orders: a chai latte for a deputy warden (“not too sweet!”). Four shots of espresso for a guard headed into a long shift (“I need that extra kick”). Five orders in a row of the house specialty, the “Captain T”: an iced caramel latte with whipped cream on top named after a favorite officer.

“Omar, you’re an artist, kid!” one guard said as Omar Jhury, 29, swirled the caramel syrup on top and peeled back a straw in a delicate petal shape.

“Whole lotta drizzles today,” said Randolph Denis, 44, squeezing a zigzag of vanilla syrup atop an iced latte. During my visit, in late September, pumpkin spice, of course, was about to be in season.

Iced drinks ready for pickup in the employee lounge.
Iced drinks ready for pickup in the employee lounge.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Mr. Denis and the rest of the baristas (guards and instructors never call them inmates while they’re in class) were convicted and sentenced to short city sentences at the Eric M. Taylor Center where roughly 730 inmates and 800 uniformed staff coexist each day, not always peacefully.

The barista class started in 2017 at the island’s women’s facility and was such a hit that the New York City Department of Correction expanded it to include 18-to-24-year-olds and convicted adult men. Over the course of four weeks, they have learned the nuances of customer service; the difference between dark and light roast; the intricacies of steamed milk.

“If it sounds like a piece of tearing paper, it’s ready,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “You don’t want to hear popping.”

The barista program (it’s unpaid at Rikers) and a handful of others like it nationwide give inmates a new set of professional skills and a way to pass the time, but they also reflect a growing theory in the criminal justice system that the $88 billion coffee industry can soften the blow of incarceration and provide a critical link to employment. A job — even one that pays $10 to $15 an hour, roughly the wage range at Starbucks — can help end the cycle of crime and recidivism, experts say.

Each year in America roughly nine million people get out of jail and more than 650,000 are released from state and federal prisons. Some 68 percent of those will be rearrested within three years of release; 83 percent will be rearrested within nine years, according to government data. That is partly because of hiring discrimination: Employers are 50 percent less likely to call back an applicant with a criminal record, contributing to an unemployment rate nearly five times higher than that of the general population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. “Getting folks a job right after release is a good public safety policy and a good work force development policy,” said Christopher Watler, executive director for New York State at the Center for Employment Opportunities, a nonprofit that helps people find jobs after prison.

While no data exists yet for tracking how many former inmates go on to work in the coffee trade, the Department of Correction said restaurants and hospitality represented a growing field of employment for people with criminal backgrounds. And at a time when ex-convicts have started hip ice cream shops and a boutique workout called Con-Body (“a prison-style fitness boot camp”), coffee is a relatively easy small-business start-up. Numerous women who participated in barista training courses at a prison in Alaska went on to open coffee kiosks or sell coffee out of a van. “You can outfit a full business for less than $100,000,” said Edward Mesick, a barista who trains inmates in the Anchorage area.

Barista programs can help jails in other, possibly more significant, ways than simply helping inmates find employment upon release. Incarceration is a dehumanizing experience. Working in a coffee shop helps the people inside remember how to interact in polite society. The for-profit work traditionally found in correctional facilities, like stamping license plates or making cheap clothing on an assembly line for 86 cents an hour, can’t do that. “In some ways it’s just about restoring dignity. That’s really hard to do if you’re a robot on an assembly line with no windows working 10 hours a day,” said Nick Hirsch, director of the Coffee Crafters Academy, which operates barista classes in two Ohio prisons. “But when you craft a drink, you have to have soft skills, customer interaction, that impacts your work.”

Eddie Rodriguez taking an order.
Eddie Rodriguez taking an order.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Those cordial customer interactions can help leaven daily prison life, where the guard-inmate relationship is tense. In New York, the barista program is at the forefront of the Department of Correction’s wider efforts to lessen confrontations between inmates and staff and help inmates maintain social skills. This past fall, Elizabeth Glazer, the director of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office of criminal justice, visited Norway with other city officials to study why the Scandinavian nation had more peaceful prisons. She observed facilities where prisoners are allowed to wear their own clothes, cook their own food (knives allowed) and receive a daily allowance to spend at the commissary. Upon release, a warden gives them his personal cellphone number.

“The barista stuff, we’re trying to make it part of a holistic continuum,” Ms. Glazer said. “It’s an incredibly important part of how we think about lightening the touch of the criminal justice system.”

Rikers Island, a 400-acre sprawl of barbed wire, squat brick buildings and surveillance cameras in the East River between Queens and the Bronx, is one of the country’s largest urban correctional facilities and the largest in the city, with nearly 40,000 detainees and inmates passing through last year and 1.62 million distinct admissions since 2001. Its grim tableau of trailers, chain-link fencing, mental hospitals, jails and holding facilities has been so rife with reports of brutality and corruption that the New York City Council in October approved an $8 billion plan to close Rikers by 2026, replacing it with smaller jails around the city. The City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, called the jail complex “a stain on New York City.”

In 2015 things at Rikers were particularly bad. There were roughly 9,400 assaults at the jail complex, the highest rate in five years. Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old who had spent three years (often in solitary confinement) at Rikers awaiting trial for stealing a backpack, a charge that was eventually dismissed, killed himself two years after release. More recently, an 18-year-old detainee with a history of suicide attempts tried to hang himself on the premises, with guards reportedly standing by without intervening for seven minutes.

Rikers is one of the country’s largest urban correctional facilities.
Rikers is one of the country’s largest urban correctional facilities.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

The Correction Department wanted to expand the programs that would both reward good behavior and give inmates and detainees who were potentially drifting toward violence and hopelessness something to look forward to. Rikers administrators had already witnessed the positive impact of its barbering and food-services classes, which culminated in a three-course sit-down dinner served by inmates to guards and their families.

The department analyzed labor statistics and found that coffee shops spreading to New York’s gentrifying neighborhoods were more open to hiring people with criminal backgrounds than other industries. The economy had changed, but for the most part, jails and prisons still offered underfunded training in the usual skills: carpentry, construction, scaffolding building and other hard labor.

Mr. de Blasio’s office approved the barista plan and the city provided the funding to buy an industrial espresso maker. In an email, Mr. de Blasio said professional programs were part of a larger effort to “break the cycle of recidivism and mass incarceration” and help people get “the skills they need to live productive healthy lives upon re-entry.”

The Correction Department brought in Procreate Coffee, a Brooklyn-based school that offers coffee enthusiasts classes like latte art and barista skills for up to $175, to come to the island to teach.

“When I first heard about it, I was like ‘Oh, you mean you’re starting a program on Randalls Island’” (the park), said Jessa Winn, the owner of Procreate, who helped develop the curriculum and oversees the barista classes, along with a growing staff of assistants. “I showed up with my Chemex and V60 pour-overs and drippers,” she said. Glass is banned at the jail, so there went the Chemex.

Ms. Winn, 33, petite and blond with a mullet that stuck out from the back of her baseball cap, had to adjust the curriculum. The inmates wanted to master the caramel latte, not develop an appreciation for craft coffee. But Ms. Winn did buy the beans from Booskerdoo Coffee & Baking Company, a small supplier in Asbury Park, N.J., herself. “I wanted everyone to experience a level up from Starbucks,” she said.

During the barista class, inmates get to trade in their army-green prison-issued uniforms for a black dress shirt and black cap. “It’s like a doctor when he throws on that white shirt,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “We come in and put on our uniforms and we’re focused, you leave your feelings at the door and you come in and you do your job.”

Jessa Winn, owner and class instructor of Procreate Coffee, working with Omar Jhury and Joshua Molina.
Jessa Winn, owner and class instructor of Procreate Coffee, working with Omar Jhury and Joshua Molina.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Joshua Molina, a spindly 20-year-old with a bushy beard, put the finishing vanilla drops on an iced mocha. “It makes you feel more free,” he said of the three hours a week he spends in barista school.

The program is optional and offered regardless of what charges or conviction landed people at Rikers. “We’re going to bring you here and give you the tools in order for you to work on any negative behavior that might have brought you here,” said Francis Torres, an assistant commissioner at the Correction Department. “We’re not here to judge. That part has already been done by the court system.”

Before the cafe opened, interactions between the guards and inmates were often strained to the point of breaking. The jail staff (who wouldn’t use their full names for security reasons) were initially hesitant to accept anything from the inmates. But any reluctance wore off when they realized they could get a fancy coffee drink free. I asked one officer how it compared to the coffee at Rikers before the barista program: stale Folgers out of an aluminum drip. “Fuhgeddaboudit!” he said, waving a hand in the air.

The next phase of the program will pair graduates with paid internships in local coffee shops. The jail plans to organize a cafe night when community coffee shops can come to Rikers, sample the drinks and get to know the inmate-baristas. Graduates earn correction department barista certification and city officials said they hoped to provide starter kits with the basics to find a job (toothbrush, razor, MetroCard).

Mr. Molina had never held a job before he was convicted in June. His brother works at a Starbucks on the Lower East Side and Mr. Molina figured the barista class would at least give him something to put on his résumé when he is scheduled to be released this month. “I didn’t have nothing, no experience,” Mr. Molina said. “So it was just going to be go back out there and do what I do, but this opens up other things.”

Mr. Hirsch, the barista trainer in Ohio, recently testified at the parole hearing of Gabriel Artis, 48, who was released from prison this year and now holds two steady jobs in Columbus, delivering furniture and driving a shuttle bus. Mr. Artis said the barista program gave him the skills to find these higher-paying jobs. “I’d been locked up for 23 and a half years. I needed to make sure my social skills were up to par,” he told me. “I drop off furniture to people’s homes so I need to be sociable and nice.”

The Ohio program reflects a wider trend in the criminal justice system, often funded by nonprofit donations, to update workplace training. In addition to classes like Foundations of Barista Skills and Intermediate Coffee Roasting, California state prisons also teach prisoners commercial diving and underwater welding and accredited classes in Autodesk, a technology used in construction and engineering. Younger inmates at San Quentin State Prison can learn how to code.

The goal is to pair a prisoner with potential work that takes advantage of their strengths. “Let’s say they’re in for selling drugs, then this is someone who has experience running a business and accounting,” said Dionne Barnes-Proby, a social policy researcher at Rand. “Yes, it’s illicit activity, but how can it be leveraged into something legal?”

The prison system started to see opportunity in coffee about five years ago after Starbucks endorsed “ban the box,” a movement to abolish the box on job applications that asks whether a candidate has a criminal history. The country’s 35,000 coffee shops employ 1.7 million people, according to the National Coffee Association. Starbucks, with its more than 15,000 stores in the United States, is by far the largest employer.

The coffee chain had become known for being relatively friendly to job applicants with criminal records. Starbucks doesn’t inquire about criminal history on an initial job application and won’t run background checks until after making a conditional offer of employment. “None of this is charity,” the company’s founder, Howard Schultz, wrote in a 2015 letter to Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, a vocal supporter of ban the box. “We are simply giving people an opportunity — sometimes a second one — to prove themselves while helping to grow our company.”

Then, in 2017, Xavier McElrath-Bey, a senior adviser at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, spoke at the Starbucks shareholder meeting. He shared his story of being hired as a barista at a Starbucks on Chicago’s South Side after spending 13 years in Illinois state correctional facilities.

Mr. McElrath-Bey had earned two associate degrees and one bachelor’s degree in prison, but when it came time for a background check, employer after employer turned him away. The Starbucks interview was going well, but Mr. McElrath-Bey couldn’t handle more disappointment.

“I was beaten down. I wanted to express my truth,” he told me. So he confessed to the store manager that he’d been incarcerated since he was 13 for a homicide-related offense. “She stopped me and said ‘I won’t judge you by what you did in the past. I’m going to judge you based on who you are today and what you do now,’” he recalled.

He got the job and went on to earn a master’s degree at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

Advocates know that it will take more than the coffee industry to solve one of the country’s most vexing problems. The United States has the world’s largest prison population, both per capita and in absolute terms, with 1.5 million prisoners and 745,000 jail inmates in 2017. Black men are six times more likely to be imprisoned than white men, and Latino men are three times more likely.

From left, Eddie Rodriguez, Randolph Denis, Omar Jhury and Joshua Molina after their barista class.
From left, Eddie Rodriguez, Randolph Denis, Omar Jhury and Joshua Molina after their barista class.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

In Britain, a juvenile barista prison program has proved that the efforts, at best, amount to baby steps. “I would be lying if I said we’ve changed hundreds and hundreds of lives,” said Max Dubiel, a founder of Redemption Roasters, which has offered coffee classes at a youth prison in Aylesbury, England, since 2016. “The pipeline is very slow and we all work incredibly hard just to change a handful of lives who would’ve fallen back into crime.”

Rodney Jones, 41, had just been released after 18 years in Ohio state correctional facilities when he started working at Third Way Coffee, a coffee shop in Columbus affiliated with the Coffee Crafters Academy. Mochas are his forte. That job helped him get experience to land the next one. But Mr. Jones, like the other ex-convicts I spoke to, knew the odds were against him. “When I came home they gave me $75 and told me to fend for myself,” he said of the prison. “It’s no wonder there’s a 70 percent recidivism rate with no end in sight.”

I’d been trying to visit Rikers to observe the barista program for months, but it seemed like every time I was set to visit, a crisis happened. In June, Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who had been arrested on misdemeanor assault charges and sent to Rikers because she couldn’t afford to pay a $500 bail, was found dead in her cell. I wanted to observe the cafe, see how serving an officer a latte could, as Correction Department officials had suggested, fundamentally change the rapport between inmate and guard. But I also just wanted to know what life was like in this place sitting right in the East River that most New Yorkers only know about through brutal depictions on TV.

The cafe had churned out more than 100 drinks when the inmates closed shop for the morning. I accompanied them, along with a couple of guards, into an adjacent room, lined with tawny brick walls, barred windows and fluorescent overhead lights. The buzz of airplanes taking off from La Guardia Airport formed a steady soundtrack, reminding them of the freedom just outside the walls.

The barista class had provided a respite to the tedium of jail time, but nothing would change the fact that they weren’t free.

“I’m ready to go. I feel this is a waste of time. That’s the biggest challenge for me,” said Mr. Denis, who had three months left on a 13-month sentence. “I’ve learned my lesson. I’ve gotten some great skills and I’m ready to apply them. I got four kids so I don’t see the purpose of this much longer.”

Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Denis heading to their housing unit.
Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Denis heading to their housing unit.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Aside from memories of their moms making percolated coffee with Carnation evaporated milk or an ex-girlfriend who worked as a barista (“I spent a lot of time in Williamsburg,” Mr. Denis said), the men hadn’t had much experience with the $5 drinks that are a daily ritual for so many upwardly mobile New Yorkers. “I didn’t even know coffee was a science,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “I’d wake up and I was happy with my instant coffee.”

Yes, the program provides hope for employment, but the more we talked, it also struck me as a stark example of the parallel lives of the mostly poor, black and Latino inmates and the mostly white, liberal coffee shop owners and their upscale clientele. What Mr. de Blasio called “a tale of two cities,” colliding over high-end coffee drinks.

Mr. Rodriguez, in particular, had been so upbeat taking orders at the cafe, so proud to pull on that barista uniform. But now he seemed sullen, hard on himself for landing in Rikers for a second time and eager to get home to Queens to his 7-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son, who had just had another birthday with his father behind bars. “You can really lose it in these places, you can come in here and leave babbling,” he said.

So what would they want people who hadn’t been arrested to know about what it’s really like in here? What it means to have something to look forward to?

The men were quiet amid the hum of a window AC unit and those planes taking off. Then, Mr. Rodriguez, the oldest and a sort of surrogate father to the younger inmates, spoke up. “This isn’t a waste of taxpayer dollars,” he said of the barista program. “We’re not a menace to society. We’re your brothers and your husbands and your sons and we’re coming home.”

Iliana Magra contributed reporting.

Amy Chozick is a New York-based writer at large, covering the personalities and power struggles in business, politics and media. She is a former national political reporter and the author of “Chasing Hillary.” @amychozick • Facebook

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