Flipping burgers, frying eggplant and serving French fries, the workers at the Old Armory Grille are hustling at noon, serving hundreds of hungry customers during the week.
The Old Armory Grille is a small cafe tucked in downtown Springfield. While it appears to be your average lunch spot, it’s unique in its own way.
The restaurant is run entirely by inmates.
The offenders working the cashier, cleaning tables, chopping vegetables and running the grill are nearing the end of their sentences and were given the opportunity to work in the kitchen to learn a new skill before re-entering society.
The restaurant is the sheriff’s department’s way of giving the inmates a chance to be outside of their cells and in the world, even if for just 40 hours a week.
The woman behind the cash register has another year in jail ahead of her. She tells Western Mass News she’s incarcerated because of a mistake she made in her life.
The man behind the scenes prepping food says he served time in Ludlow at Hampden County House of Corrections and is now at the Western Massachusetts Correctional Alcohol Center.
“To put it bluntly, I’m here because I let my addiction take over and I made the wrong choices in life,” he said. “My life became unmanageable. I let it take over.”
The restaurant is secured by Corporal Maryann Alben, who took the job when the restaurant opened just five years ago.
“We treat them like regular workers,” she said. “We don’t treat them like they’re inmates. We don’t refer to them as inmates.”
The kitchen is supervised back Jack Curley, who went to culinary school in South Carolina. He had dreams of working in a big kitchen one day, and never expected to be where he is at now, but says he has no regrets about the position he has and the work he does every day.
“My function is to give them the skills, the tools and the confidence to go out and find a job,” he said.
Curley say that it is sometimes hard to believe his staff is incarcerated.
“It’s a little bit tough at times,” he said, because of how well they work together and how hard they work.
The inmates earn a small stipend of $5 a day.
“It makes me forget about being where I’m at,” one of the inmates said. “It’s the outside. It’s a new start and I really like it. I feel normal. I feel human.”
The customers continues to come back day after day to be served by the inmates who have really become friends.
“I have to say, sometimes I talk to these people and I’m like, what happened to them that they wound up in that situation? It’s hard to know because they seem to be wonderful people,” Ira Rubenzahl, the president of Springfield Technical Community College, a frequent diner of the restaurant, said.
“I found myself coming down here a couple of times a week and I didn’t really know the fullness of the program,” Denise Ridley, a frequent diner, said. “And I would watch them for the very first time start being a cashier, you know, and they’re nervous.”
Alben says 86-percent of the inmates involved in the program are hired in restaurants after they’re released from jail, even though most of them have never worked in a restaurant before.
“My little input may have straightened out more than one life,” Curley said. “Because if mom and dad do well, kids do well.”
Each of the inmates involved in the program leave certified and are also given the opportunity to further their education in culinary arts by attending Holyoke Community College on Saturdays to train with chefs at the school.
Copyright 2015 Western Mass News (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.