How would you like to eat dinner in a PRISON? Join me at Restaurant Interno – located inside the San Diego Prison in the Walled City of Cartagena – where the inmates are the chefs, food servers, bussers, and maitre des. You can also watch and share this video on Facebook and YouTube.
The organization behind the restaurant is called La Fundacion Accion Interna and their mission is to improve the quality of life of Colombia's prison population during and after incarceration by helping them learn skills to obtain a job after they're released. They do this through in-prison skill training and educational workshops.
Restaurant Interno is the organization's most popular project to involve the community in their efforts. The restaurant is open for dinner 6 days a week, and tourists and Costeños are invited to join the inmates for a chef's special menu del dia. At 90,000 pesos, which is about $30 USD, the price of a meal is steep for Colombian standards, but the money goes towards funding the organization.
All positions at the restaurant are filled by the inmates including the chefs, food servers, bussers, and maitre des. The jobs are awarded based on good behavior within the prison, and the inmates can work there as long as they'd like, even after they're free while they look for new jobs.
La Fundacion Accion Interna hopes for their restaurant to serve as a model of social reinsertion and prisoner reconciliation for other prisons around the world. A working example of how mistakes can become opportunities.
Prisoner Rehabilitation vs Retribution
I was excited to learn about this restaurant and the organization behind it. Prisoner rehabilitation holds a special place in my heart because as an American, I feel that we do such a bad job with it in our country. USA has the highest incarceration rate of its population in the world with 2.2 million inmates, which is about 0.6% of our population. To give you an idea of how staggering of a number that is… if the US prison and jail population were a city, it would be the 5th most populated city in the US behind New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. And it's an expensive population to incarcerate. USA spends about $80 billion each year on corrections facilities, compared to the $68 billion discretionary budget of the Department of Education.
The problem with our US incarceration system is that 77% of inmates return to prison within 5 years of being released. Our system is centered around retribution instead of rehabilitation. For that reason, I'm happy to showcase a positive example of inmate rehabilitation in action.
But is it working?
I think that Restaurant Interno is a wonderful concept to share, and I hope that it inspires other organizations and prison systems around the world to think about creating or improving their own prisoner rehabilitation programs. But although it's an inspiring story, I don't know if it works.
1) The organization says that it helps teach inmates new employable skills, but how employable is being a food server in Colombia? In every city in Colombia I've ever been to, food servers are paid minimum wage and previous experience wasn't a criteria for getting the job. Let's be honest and admit that customer service isn't a big part of the dining experience in Colombia. The chefs at Interno may have the upperhand in terms of learning new skills, but the limited menu doesn't exactly allow them to become extremely well rounded in the kitchen.
2) The program is designed to help inmates find work after they are released from prison so that they don't return to a life of crime and inevitably return to prison – but has that been the case? La Fundacion Accion has only been around since 2012, and Restaurant Interno only opened in 2016, so it's too early to say whether or not the program is actually working to prevent inmates from returning back into the system. Another 5-10 years will be a better measure of its success rate in this department.
3) How much of the money raised actually goes towards the organization's mission of improving the quality of life of prisoners? This question isn't meant to single out or attack La Fundacion Accion in particular. What I'm describing is a problem that many non-profit organizations face in every country of the world. They are notorious for bringing in a lot of money, but oftentimes only a tiny fraction of the proceeds actually reaching the cause.
I bring up these questions because I have no agenda to promote Restaurant Interno or praise its efforts. I feel that it's important to look at stories from multiple angles. I think that they offer an interesting concept to share with the world that could inspire others, but this video is not an endorsement. Please perform your own due diligence before supporting any organization.
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