One of Cartagena’s hottest restaurants is behind bars. Literally, behind the bars of a women’s prison. And anyone can make a reservation, enter the prison, and be wined and dined by a staff entirely comprised of current inmates. But there’s a very good reason for it.
Cárcel Distrital de San Diego runs Restaurante Interno (“Interno” in Spanish means “inmate”), and the intention behind it is two-fold. Its primary goal is to challenge the way Colombian society perceives former inmates by portraying the women in a positive light. Here’s the psychology behind it: if the public sees the women successfully running the restaurant, acting as waitresses, cooks, hostesses, and cashiers, perhaps they will then see them for more than just the crimes they committed. At that point, maybe society will see them more for their potential and give them a fair chance to reintegrate, upon release.
According to Luz Díaz, program director at Interno, that is not the status quo in Colombia. She says these women are hardly given a second chance because, speaking generally, no one will hire someone who has been in prison. The widely accepted (but false) notion is that anyone who has committed a crime will do it again, so the opportunities to start over on the right tracks are just not there.
You'll often see the women throw up what looks like a peace sign, but it's actually their motto, segundas oportunidades. And on the back of their t-shirts is this line: Yo creo en las segundas oportunidades. "I believe in second chances."
For that reason, we chose not to delve into the crimes that put these women in prison in the first place. In the video, Luz gives us a general overview of some of their crimes, but nothing specific about anyone.
The second intention of the restaurant program is to give the inmates something to work towards, and provide them with applicable skills they can use once they’re released.
Jackeline Granados is a cook at Interno, and a former inmate at that prison. She’s a prime example of how this program actually does work as it’s intended to. When we spoke to her for this story, she was preparing to work her last shift at the restaurant because, happily, she got a job working as a cook in a restaurant.
“From some of the horrible experiences I’ve had living in the prison, this [restaurant] has been the best.”
Images from inside the prison provide easy justification for why a program like Interno is so necessary, from the inmates perspective. The prison, as you might imagine, is sparse, at best. 150 women are crammed into a pretty small space, in a building that is old and crumbling. Cardboard boxes stand in as makeshift window blinds. Inspirational quotes are scribbled and painted on the prison walls. There is no A/C (unsurprisingly) but in Cartagena’s oppressive Caribbean heat, it can be suffocating inside the prison.
But the restaurant itself is a charmer (it really is, I’m not just saying that). The entrance is just past a set of white prison gates, spruced up with hot pink tassels. The walls are painted in a happy, tropical motif. Ceiling fans circulate the scent of really, truly delicious Colombian cuisine. That’s what impressed us the most about the restaurant: how delicious the food is. Check out the video to see how beautifully they plate the food!
Jackeline believes strongly in the power of the restaurant program, if you apply yourself to it.
“Being in here, they teach you and give you strength. It teaches you, they want to get into your heart, that yes, you can. You can pick yourself up, and you can move forward.”
You can’t argue with that.
Closer to home, here's how a men's prison in San Diego is using art to help their inmates reintegrate back into society.
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