San Quentin Employment Readiness Program

Last week, I had the opportunity to join a group of 17 businesses participating in the Employment Readiness Program at San Quentin State Penitentiary. The group was organized by Diana Williams who volunteers to lead a two month training designed to help inmates with soft skills, interviewing, and resume writing in preparation for their release. There are 25 men graduating from the current cohort and there were three people representing hospitality: GGRA, Home of Chicken and Waffles, and Rubicon Bakery.

Chairs were set up around the chapel in facing pairs under a sign for each business, and the men were instructed to visit with the top three businesses on their lists. Not surprisingly, many of the men gravitated to the spots where the hospitality representatives sat for their mock interviews. I had a chance to conduct six, 10-minute mock interviews, and each person who spoke with me had solid experience working in the kitchens at San Quentin and many had culinary experience prior to their incarceration.

While one goal of this Employment Readiness Program is to help the men gain the skills they need to find and keep a job once they are released, the larger goal is to reduce recidivism that is often a result of not being able to find a job in the first place. Though San Francisco has passed the Fair Chance Ordinance (Ban the Box), other cities in California have not. Often having to check a box on an employment application asking about conviction history disqualifies candidates before even being called for an interview. Engaging businesses in this program has been a key to its success. The business involvement drives the men’s commitment because they know at the end of the program they will have a good resume, gain interview skills, and meet members of the business community.

This relationship GGRA now has with the San Quentin Employment Readiness Program will lead to potential candidates for restaurants in SF Bay Area. Derek Johnson, owner of Home of Chicken and Waffles, has been participating since the beginning and now up to 80% of his staff are formerly incarcerated individuals. All of his original staff, now working for him as managers in his three restaurants, were also formerly incarcerated and have helped him to grow his business.

Isaiah, one of the men I interviewed last week, put it best, “I need a job and would love the opportunity to take both my past experience in kitchens and the skills and training I’ve gained working here, into a restaurant in San Francisco. I have lived on the periphery for most of my life and though I need a job, what I want most of all is to be a member of a community.”

A new program is also launching this summer called San Quentin Cooks. It will be a five day-a-week, 48 week, culinary training program. GGRA will be reaching out to our members to visit as guest chefs and speakers. We will continue to update our members as this develops. For more information about this visit or participating in future visits or San Quentin Cooks, contact Donnalyn Murphy or call 415-781-5350.

-Donnalyn Murphy
Associate Director, Golden Gate Restaurant Association

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