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Baristas behind bars: Program prepares inmates for return to society

According to the RAND Corporation, inmates who take part in educational programs while incarcerated are 43% less likely to end up back in prison.
Baristas behind bars: Program prepares inmates for return to society
Posted at 10:51 AM, Jul 19, 2023

There is a sense of pride Monica Moroles takes when an order comes in at the coffee shop she works at.

"I say, how are you this morning and what can I get for you? What would you like?" She told Scripps News.

The pride she takes is not just in the coffee she makes but in the fact she can do it while serving time in jail.

"Being trusted, and it's a privilege to be here," Moroles says.

Moroles is part of Redemption Coffee, a fully-functioning specialty coffee shop, inside the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center outside Sacramento.

"When my students are in here this is not jail, that's a really important part for me, when they leave, their dorm and come here, this is a different environment," says program director Jamie Mason. "They should be able to do anything a specialty coffee requires of them. Whether it's pulling espresso from pouring a heart on top of someone's cappuccino."

For more than 20 years, Jamie Mason trained people to become elite-level baristas. Since 2020, she's been teaching those skills to women convicted of non-violent offenses serving time at this Sacramento County jail.

SEE MORE: US depends on prison labor, but is slow to mandate fair conditions

The goal of Redemption Coffee is for people like Moroles to be able to find work when they're released back into society.

"I'm a social person so that is my goal, to get out and take care of things and continue my path of sobriety with AA because I've never attended AA before," Moroles says.

Redemption Coffee is one of several vocational re-entry programs at Rio Cosumnes. The Sacramento Sheriff's Office says inmates can also learn skills like welding and engraving.

The average pay for a barista in California is just above minimum wage. Mason says two of her students who went through the Redemption Coffee program are making as much as 30 dollars an hour.

The unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is more than 13-times the national average. Roughly seven in ten people released from prison will be arrested within three years of their release, according to the Department of Justice.

"A lot of the people that come into custody, it's been their lifestyle for so long," says Sacramento Sheriff's Deputy Larsson Brunsvold, "We try to give a structure in their learning [by showing] what can make them successful when they get out and changing the mindset of 'I'm going to be back in a few months anyway.'"

SEE MORE: Former convict overcoming the lack of reentry programs in the US

Deputy Larsson Brunsvold oversees the reentry programs at this jail. He says even if program participants don't end up working in coffee, the program teaches skills like accountability and keeping a schedule that can help when someone is released.

"For a long time, it was that — throw them away, lock them away, throw away the key — kind of deal," Brunsvold added. "Research is showing it's not something that works, and it keeps them coming back so having the sort of programs is slowly growing."

According to the RAND Corporation — a non-profit think-tank — inmates who took part in educational programs while incarcerated were 43% less likely to re-offend. 

"I want to be able to give these women an opportunity," Mason said. "Not just a job but a living wage, and sometimes, higher than a living wage job to start off with and coffee does that and you don't need a college education."

In the three years since Redemption Coffee opened, Mason says she's trained roughly 20 students and five are currently working in the coffee industry.

"The sense of, 'you can teach an old dog new tricks,'" Moroles added.

For her, each day and each order are steps toward walking back through the gates and finding a way to make sure she doesn't return.

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