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Friday morning was like any other morning in the last eight months for 41-year-old Charles Williams.
Williams woke up at 3:30 a.m., put on his bright white work uniform, walked down the hallway and clocked in.
For the next eight hours, Williams bustled around an industrial gray kitchen, cooking breakfast and taco lunch for over 450 men and women.
Like the eight other men who also worked in the kitchen Friday morning, Williams is one of nearly 500 inmates at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail, located at 9320 Merrimac Trail in Williamsburg.
Friday morning, Williams and eight other inmates — three cooks, three dishwashers, two food line servers and one general cleaner — worked under the pressure of the clock, wearing hairnets, plain white uniforms and black work boots.
“I wanted to keep myself occupied and not get in trouble,” Williams said. “If I didn’t have this job, I’d just stare at the clock all day.”
Within the walls of the jail, incarcerated men are building workplace skills and learning life lessons — all while earning time off their sentences.
“I’ve learned a lot about love, patience and tolerance in dealing with other personalities since I started working here,” said inmate Brian Giedd, 45, referring to other inmates who work in the kitchen. “They’re learning to deal with me, too.”
And in Food Service Manager Tina Cowles-Perkins’ eyes, the inmates are preparing themselves for their futures outside the jail.
“A lot of inmates have left and used their experience here on the outside,” Cowles-Perkins said. “I get phone calls from former inmates telling me how well they’re doing.”
Becoming a worker
Like other inmate workers at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail, Williams keeps himself occupied and productive by working six days a week.
After 30 days in jail and a written request, Williams landed a job in the facility’s kitchen. He bakes cakes and dinner rolls, and helps the cooks when they need an extra hand.
There are 18 to 20 inmates who work in the jail’s kitchen, with eight or nine working per shift. The jail aims to keep the number of inmates at that level in case some workers have court dates or other appointments and can’t work their shift, Cowles-Perkins said.
There are 70 inmate workers in addition to the ones assigned to the kitchen, Jail Superintendent John Kuplinski said.
Inmates may work for the jail after they have been incarcerated there for 30 days. They are put through a screening process and appointed to jobs that fit their given skill set or interests, Cowles-Perkins said. Inmates can work in the kitchen, laundry room, in maintenance or perform other tasks throughout the jail.
“If they were a mechanic, they’d probably send him to maintenance,” she said. “But if they’re a mechanic and want to become a cook, or if they’re a cook and want to do maintenance, sometimes they can.”
“Everybody deserves a chance,” she added.
Those convicted or accused of violent crimes are not able to work in the kitchen. Inmates can also get time taken off their sentences by working, called “good time,” which can vary depending on their offenses and the time of their sentences, according to good time paperwork from the jail.
Williams, a former Newport News Shipyard employee, is working in the VPRJ kitchen while he awaits trial on a driving while intoxicated charge.
He was arrested April 28 and charged with driving while intoxicated, third or subsequent offense, and driving with a suspended or revoked driver’s license, according to Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court records. Williams’ criminal history dates back to 2011 and includes traffic infractions, driving without a license and driving while intoxicated.
Some inmates choose to work because they have a strong work ethic and others do it to get time away from their cellblock, Cowles-Perkins said. Inmate workers are housed together in D-block.
Kuplinski said employing inmates and keeping them productive is a key aspect of an inmate management system. Employing inmates also saves taxpayer dollars, because the jail does not need to have a kitchen team on the payroll.
“For those that work in the kitchen, along with other inmate workers, it gives them something to do besides sitting around and watching TV in the housing units,” he said.
Positivity through productivity
For Giedd, working in the kitchen is an opportunity to shave time off his 10-year sentence. A single father of three boys and a Gulf War veteran, the 45-year-old applied for nearly every inmate job the jail offered when he was admitted to the jail last October.
In the VPRJ kitchen, Giedd’s light humor and can-do attitude is one thing that keeps him optimistic, he said.
“I’m a dishwasher extraordinaire,” he said. “You can’t laugh at anyone else if you can’t laugh at yourself.”
Cowles-Perkins agreed, adding that Giedd keeps her laughing during her shifts.
Giedd is serving a 10-year sentence after being convicted of abduction in 2007, according to Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court records. A second charge, assault & battery, was dropped, records show.
“I made a mistake,” Giedd said. “I had too much to drink and put my hands on a female in the room, and I was charged with two felonies.”
Giedd’s entire sentence was suspended when he was convicted in 2007, but several probation violations resulted in the revocation of the full suspended sentence.
“I could have been done with my entire sentence by now if I had just served straight time,” said Giedd, who last spent a holiday with his family eight years ago. “Instead, I have four years left to serve. It’s one of those things that make you ask ‘how long do you have to pay for a mistake?’”
Trust and teamwork
The VPRJ’s kitchen operates much like any other large-scale kitchen. Mass amounts of food are produced by very few people in very little time, meaning teamwork is crucial.
“This whole group is passionate about what they’re doing,” Cowles-Perkins said. “When something is wrong, they take it upon themselves to correct it. They’ll tell each other ‘Take a break, I got it.’”
Because violent offenders are not permitted to work in the kitchen, inmates are allowed to sign out knives and other kitchen tools, such as peelers, to prepare food with.
“It’s very much about trust,” Cowles-Perkins said. “They’re under direct supervision while they’re using knives, but it still takes a lot of trust.”
Tough love is also a strong force in the jail’s kitchen.
“I train my guys to always ask ‘What if?’” Cowles-Perkins said. “I tell them to always have a plan B. Always have an alternative. Not every day is going to be a good day and not every day is going to be gravy.”
When accidents happen in the kitchen, Cowles-Perkins and other food service staff step back and encourage inmates to problem solve.
“What happens if you have six pans of vegetables and drop one? What do you do? We prepare them for that,” she said.
Williams has been working to perfect his dinner rolls since he started the job last May.
“The first batch was kind of jacked up,” Williams said, laughing.
“I asked the guy who had been doing it for help, and he said he didn’t have time. Then I asked the supervisor on duty and she said she would help me the next day,” Williams said.
But Friday morning, Cowles-Perkins told Williams his dinner rolls had improved, prompting a wide smile to spread across Williams’ face.
“That makes you feel so good when a supervisor gives you a compliment, like you really did something well,” he said.
A learning curve
Cowles said the inmates prepare a variety of foods on a five-week rotating menu. The menu was adopted about a year and a half ago, and includes many meals made from scratch, including casseroles, cakes, fresh vegetables, potatoes and starches.
For meals made from scratch, inmates must be able to read and follow a recipe.
When some inmates come to work in the kitchen, they have never cooked for more than themselves, or have never had to read a recipe.
“You teach them to read, cook and measure,” Cowles-Perkins said. “A lot of them get a thrill out of it, cooking for 400 or 500 people.”
Giedd has four years left of his ten-year sentence, and hopes to someday lead the kitchen as a cook.
“We’re working toward it,” Cowles-Perkins said.
The skills inmates acquire while working at the jail prepares them for jobs once they are released from jail, Kuplinski said.
All inmates in the kitchen are trained to work all jobs – from cook to dishwasher – and each have their food handlers card, Cowles-Perkins said.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, a food handlers card indicates the individual has a food safety understanding that exceeds the typical knowledge basis for staff and shows extra commitment to food safety.
“If they didn’t work in the field out there before, hopefully the job skills they gain here can help them get a job when they’re released,” Kuplinski said.
While Williams is not sure what work he will do when he is released, he said he may use his time spent baking in the VPRJ kitchen to find a new job.
“I’m going to have to pray on it and see what happens,” he said. “When I get out I’m not going to just sit around.”
Fearing can be reached at 207-975-5459.