By Jessica Bruha
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Several inmates beamed with pride at the Cleveland County Justice Center as they cooked, served lunch and were recognized by several public officials during their graduation Tuesday from a food service program, In2Work.
Sheriff Joe Lester said the nine inmates have been working 12 to 14 hours a day for 90 consecutive days to help them become more productive members of society. In2Work is a national program designed to help reduce recidivism and help inmates find employment when they are released.
Glenn Hamlett, Great Southwest district manager for Aramark Correctional Services, which partners with jail staff for the food service program, said the nine inmates are joining a previous graduating group of more than 1,600 inmates across the United States.
“When you think about time behind bars, it’s exciting to see programs that offer offenders a chance to change their trajectory and where they’re headed,” Hamlett said.
Each of the inmates will receive a National Restaurant Association ServeSafe certification, which will give them a “leg up” when applying for their first jobs when they are released from jail.
The menu the inmates prepared for graduation attendees Tuesday included a spring salad with scratch club rolls, Southwest beef tenderloin medallions with chipotle horseradish sauce, almond-crusted asparagus and smashed potatoes with rosemary butter. For dessert, the group prepared toasted pound cake covered with balsalmic-macerated strawberries and basil.
“I want to tell you guys how proud I am of you. What you’ve accomplished is nothing short of a miracle,” Lester said.
The sheriff said all of the inmates in the program are due to be released from jail soon. Two inmates were expected to be released within 24 hours and are expected to talk to local restaurants for possible jobs upon their release.
“Both of you tell them the sheriff sent you. As for the rest of you that get out and go look for work, feel free to use my name. I’m proud of each one of you,” Lester said. “This is a the turning point in your lives, and you can be real productive members of this community or any community, and what you take from what you’ve learned in here, you can go far with.”
Lester told the inmates they will be happy making a good wage and knowing they’ve done what is right.
“You guys have the tools to go out there and not come back. This could be your last chance,” said program manager Brandi Smith, adding how proud she was of all of them. “You guys can do this.”
Chief Carrie Davis told the inmates Tuesday that the meal was great and this class far exceeded the first class. She told the men she didn’t ever want to see them back in jail again and to use the tools and resources they have given them to go out and make something.
“Use this as a stepping stone and go out there and change your lives,” Davis said.
Cleveland County Judges Michael Tupper and Jequita Napoli also attended the graduation dinner. Both said they were proud of the group.
“We don’t want you back in jail. We also don’t want you to commit a crime. So don’t be thinking about not getting caught; be thinking about living lawfully, like having employment, having basic stability, having medical care. Do things to take care of yourself so that you don’t have temptations to do things that might be outside the law,” Napoli said.
Tupper said he’d seen many of the inmates in his courtroom before and all of the inmates should be proud of what they have accomplished.
“There’s 450 other inmates in this facility who would like to be standing where you are, so you should be incredibly proud of yourselves today and take advantage of this,” Tupper said. “This is not easy work. A lot of people can’t do this, and you’ve done it.”
Local defense attorney David Smith even had a few words for the graduating inmates, telling them what a blessing it was to be able to tell them how proud he was of what they have done and what they’ve become.
Smith said there is something special about sharing a meal and sharing food with people and something special about preparing food and giving it to people.
“It’s really fascinating to me that you all have chosen to do that, and I think you’ll find how fulfilling that is,” he said. “I’m proud of you, I really mean it. I guess what I want to leave you with is be proud of yourselves.”
All nine inmates also gave thanks to everyone involved in the program who has helped give them this “leg up.” Each one seemed grateful for this second chance.
Those who graduated Tuesday included Adam Reich, Kenneth Sharp, Ronnie Littlecreek, Russell Eworth, Christopher Mahan, David Detwiler, Christopher Moore, Keith Shubert and Matthew Harjo.
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