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National Perspective | JUSTICE SYSTEM

Serving Time--and Great Corn Chowder

Culinary arts class at North Carolina prison thrives with teacher who demands, and gives, respect and responsibility.

March 05, 1998|EDITH STANLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SMITHFIELD, N.C. — When Andrew Somers took a job three years ago at Johnston Community College, he was a bit concerned. Although he was hired to teach cooking, there were no such students enrolled at the college. "Where are my classes?" he asked.

"Drive down the road and look for the barbed wire and you're there," was the answer.

Coiled razor wire, iron fences and towers with gun-toting guards made the Johnston Correctional Center, a satellite campus of the college, easy to spot. As he stepped into the prison yard, Somers thought: "I don't want to do this."

He had dreamed of having a culinary school. During the years he was an executive chef on New York's Park Avenue, he longed for a place where he could share his cooking expertise. A prison kitchen was never in his plans.

"The first week I came here, I wondered why I should give all this talent to these people," he says. "I did some soul-searching and realized, one day these guys are getting out, coming back to my neighborhood, your neighborhood. They have to be ready."

Somers, 43, came to North Carolina with his wife to raise their family and study at Appalachian Teachers College in Boone. He answered a newspaper ad for a culinary arts teacher, and it was not until afterward that he was told he would be working at the prison.

Once inside the kitchen, Somers taught the inmates that cooking is a job they can do with pride. He also re-instilled the self-esteem that most lost when the heavy iron gates locked behind them.

Some of Somers' students admit they weren't quite sure what to make of the new instructor: a big bearded man with a New York accent who rarely removed his green felt hat. He stood in front of the class, hands on his hips, and barked orders like a drill sergeant. He could be abrasive one minute and serenade them with Al Jolson tunes the next. He demanded respect. Call me "Mr. Somers" he told them, and he showed them the same courtesy. Many had not been called "mister" for a long time.

Word spread that Somers was unique. He took an interest in his students. He made you taste what you prepared. If it was good, it was your praise. If it was awful, your punishment.

"Mr. Somers teaches things like fine restaurants serve," says Michael Harris, 26, due to be released this year after serving 10 years for burglary. "He knows how to get the maximum potential from us."

Somers demands that everything coming out of his kitchen not only taste good but look professional. He once handed a hair dryer to two inmates and made them melt down some of the too-explicit body parts they had carved on an ice mermaid.

At the end of each semester, top students attend a banquet complete with white-glove service and entertainment by the prison band--the Yard Birds.

A maximum of 25 students are chosen for Somers' class each 15-week semester, and there is a waiting list of more than 80. The inmates are interviewed by Somers, who selects them based on how much they want to be in the class. Previous cooking experience is not necessary.

Inmates at honor camps are requesting transfers to this medium-security institution. Graduates who are paroled or released have found jobs in some of the area's finest restaurants and clubs.

In a recent class, Somers instructed his students on the preparation of corn chowder--without the sherry, based on one of his Park Avenue recipes. The chowder, along with inmate-made cookies, was destined for a nearby women's and children's shelter. When the shelter project began, some of the men told Somers that for the first time in years they felt good about themselves.

For now, classes are held in the prison's kitchen. Somers looks forward to the arrival in a month of a new double-wide mobile classroom that will contain a large state-of-the-art kitchen. There, Somers and his students will continue preparing soup and cookies three times a week for the shelter and provide meals for senior citizens and shut-ins.

Many of Somers' students meet with him during their lunch hour for the Rainbow Writers project, a spinoff of the English 101 he teaches at the prison. The purpose is to write bedtime stories for the inmates' children. Some of the stories are fairy tales. Others are adventures based on actual events in their fathers' lives.

The inmates read their stories to each other and to Somers for suggestions and criticism. Once the stories are finished, they are mailed in envelopes that bear a rainbow near the address. The rainbow signals to children, especially those too young to read, that this is a letter from their father.

The No. 1 lesson Somers strives to teach his students is responsibility--to their wives, their children, their employers when they are released or paroled.

"I base my teaching theory on the one need that brought 90% of these men to prison--the pursuit of money," he says. "My boss and my priest say I almost run a ministry. I'm not running a ministry. I'm trying to raise real men. Real men do whatever they can to support themselves and their families."

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