New Generation Of Starbucks Baristas Being Trained On Rikers Island

Administrators at New York's Rikers Island prison have thought of an ingenious plan for a steady supply of lattes, mochas and other artisan beverages that would otherwise cost $4.00 on their way to work; train inmates to become baristas!

Indeed, one of the country's most notorious jails has an in-house coffee shop that "pops up twice daily in the staff lounge," serving a picky prison staff their favorite caffeinated indulgence just right, according to 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. -New York Times

"Whole lotta drizzles today," said 44-year-old inmate Randolph Denis, as he prepared various drinks during a visit to the prison by the Times' Amy Chozick, who notes that Denis and the rest of the baristas were "convicted and sentenced to short city sentences" where around 730 inmates and 800 uniformed staff "coexist each day, not always peacefully.

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

The program was launched in 2017 at the prison's women's facility. After overwhelming success (shocking, we know), the New York City Department of Correction expanded it to include 18-24 year-old male inmates. In four weeks, they've learned all sorts of practicable coffee shop skills, including customer service, the differences between dark and light roast, and the nuances of steamed milk.

"If it sounds like a piece of tearing paper, it’s ready," said inmate Eddie Rodriguez, adding "You don't want to hear popping."

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

While the Rikers barista program is unpaid, inmates are learning valuable skills which can, in theory, help them tap into the $88 billion coffee industry upon their release - with the ability to earn $10 to $15 per hour, the average range of a Starbucks employee.

What's more, "working in a coffee shop helps people inside remember how to interact in polite society," amid the dehumanizing experience of incarceration.

"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 two in-prison coffee shops in Ohio. "But when you craft a drink, you have to have soft skills, customer interaction, that impacts your work."

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.

That said, with 68% of released inmates rearrested within three years of release and 83% rearrested within nine years, many employers are weary of hiring ex-cons. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, employers are half as likely to call back applicants who have a criminal record.

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.

"Getting folks a job right after release is a good public safety policy and a good work force development policy," said Christopher Walker, executive director for New York State at the Center for Employment Opportunities, a nonprofit that helps secure jobs for released inmates.

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

Interestingly, the program is modeled after the Norwegian prison system, which has more peaceful prisons. Last fall, Bill de Blasio's director of criminal justice, Elizabeth Glazer, visited the Scandinavian nation, where she observed prisoners wearing their own clothes, cooking their own food (with knives), and receiving a daily allowance to spend at the commissary - a humanizing experience.

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

Read the rest of the report here.