A popular program spearheaded by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department is making specialty bakers out of the most unlikely candidates: inmates looking to learn skills that will help them make real dough in the future.
The “Baking & Pastry Program” at the East Mesa Re-Entry Facility in south San Diego is designed to teach inmates valuable job skills they can use in the real world.
By acquiring those skills, the program also aims to ensure inmates don’t return to jail once they’re released and take a bite out of the state’s high recidivism rate.
The 6-month culinary program focuses on baking and pastry skills, as well as bread art. Inmates learn to make bread for jail meals and pastries for events involving San Diego County agencies. Participants also learn to knead dough for mass production or smaller-scale businesses like a pizzeria.
From strawberry tarts to specialty cakes and eclaires, the baked masterpieces are enjoyed by many. In fact, the treats were recently served at the State of County address.
For participating inmates, such as Wolfgang Herbin, the job skills attained through the program are priceless.
Herbin, who’s currently doing time for selling drugs, said he hit a rough patch in his life and “chose the wrong path.”
Now, his path has taken a major turn. He said the baking program is helping him make changes that will positively impact his life and future once he’s released from custody.
In fact, Herbin said he already has a job lined up where he'll be able to utilize everything he has learned.
“I have a friend whose sister is the manager of a bakery in La Jolla and they're willing to give me an opportunity to show my skills,” Herbin explained. “I know I can shine there when I get out. And I don't have to resort to what I did before.”
Herbin is among a group of low-risk offenders trying to change their ways by rolling dough into creative pastries, taking sweet, pastel-colored frosting and decorating cakes.
Inmate Larry Monroe said the program has exceeded his expectations. Now, he wants to use his skills to exceed the expectations of his loved ones.
“It’s something I thought I would never do and now, I’ll be able to go home, be with my family and show them something different about me,” said Monroe.
Inmate Leetri Dang hopes his newfound baking skills, plus determination to start fresh, will help him and fellow inmates on the outside.
“[To succeed], they gotta have strong will. Strong will to really want to change, because changing is not easy,” he said.
The Baking & Pastry Program has been around for one year and so far, three dozen inmates have completed it. At the end of the program – and upon passing a national sanitation exam – inmates receive a certificate from Grossmont Adult Education that lists all of their skills and knowledge.
Sheriff’s Inmate Services Division manager Robert Vander Kamp said watching inmates grow through the program is something truly special.
“You’ll see a change in them because they’ve learned something that they’ve never had before – they feel better about themselves,” said Vander Kamp.
The vocational program is not funded by taxpayers. The cost is borne by the prison Food Services Division, which helps feed 5,800 local inmates each day.
The director of the Baking & Pastry Program said the program is really picking up steam and word is getting out among the inmates at the East Mesa Re-Entry Facility.
There is now a waiting list to get into the program. To learn more, visit the San Diego County Sheriff's Department's Facebook page.