The following is an open letter from Rimutaka Prison written by a prisoner who has served fourteen years. For the past two years, he has trained as a chef to be part of Visa Wellington on a Plate’s Rimutaka Prison Gate to Plate event…

Nobody likes us, nobody trusts us, everybody hates us. That’s the perception I had of the so called outside world and the people who live in it.

So it was with amazement and a whole new outlook that I found myself standing in front of 80 customers from the general public giving a closing speech after three successful dinner services held at Rimutaka Prison over three nights.

All of the food was prepared and cooked by inmates and was then served to customers by waiting staff made up of mostly inmates.

After spending over ten years in prison getting nowhere and also getting in constant trouble because of the mind numbing boredom it was great to finally be doing something positive and constructive.

It started when I was given a job in the main prison kitchen which feeds 900 inmates three times a day. It was good just being busy.

The instructors who run the kitchen are mostly trained chefs who work for Corrections and they encourage inmates who work in the kitchen to study level two certificate basic cooking. If you show enthusiasm you can go onto level three.

I really enjoyed the cooking side of things and finished my levels two and three certificates as quickly as I could. It was at this stage that myself and five others were told of the Visa Wellington On A Plate food festival and that Corrections was keen to enter an event. If so would the six of us be interested in being involved.

We were all pretty excited by the opportunity, especially when we found out that top chef Martin Bosley would be coming out to the prison every week or so to train and mentor us.

We started training about six months out from the event and almost from our first meeting we liked Martin and we found him very relaxed with a great sense of humour and most importantly a good teacher with a lot of patience. The menu he decided on was intimidating at first but we soon realised we could do it.

Martin also asked myself and another inmate to come up with a vegetarian option which we did with our usual enthusiasm. The inmates also created our own non alcoholic drink range as well as coming up with a gluten free and dairy free option for the dessert which I think even surprised Martin.

We were given the time and resources to practise and the instructors gave us any assistance or information we needed but because it was all about the positive things inmates can achieve only the inmates were allowed to prepare and cook the food.

The spotlight was going to be on us and we expected a massive negative response from the public once they found out.

Once it did become public knowledge the negative response we expected never came, much to our surprise and relief. To top it all off, when tickets went on sale out of over 100 events our one sold out in about 15 minutes.

What did happen though was we were suddenly asked to do interviews for newspapers and a couple for radio. Also a TV crew came in to talk to us from Campbell Live.

To go from an insulated prison environment to this, was at first a real shock and we were all a little stand offish and guarded but after a while we came out of our shells and ultimately it was a real benefit for our social and re-integration skills which you lose in prison. Some of the interviews appeared in newspapers in five different countries, which blew us away.

On the night of the first dinner service we were followed around all day by a TV crew and interviewer from Campbell Live so the pressure was really on. But we conquered it and everyone was ecstatic and to be honest a little relieved. We not only produced a great dinner service but we absolutely nailed the whole service in a highly professional way that surprised a lot of people. To be honest though us inmates weren’t surprised, we knew we could do it all along.

The final two dinner services went smoothly as well and the response from the diners was truly amazing and their totally positive response to us made us realise that there really are people in the outside world willing to give us a chance.   

After it was all over we were taken back to our cells and the next day it was back to normal in the prison kitchen but for many of us it was an experience of a lifetime and for myself it has given me a real passion for food. I plan on pursuing a cooking career when I finally get released, hopefully in the baking side of things which I really enjoy.

Well that was last August and because it was such a massive success Corrections is staging another event this year and I’m lucky enough to be included once again.

Martin Bosley is also coming on board again this year which is fantastic and Rex Morgan from the Boulcott Street Bistro and Shaun Clouston from Logan Brown  are joining him, so that’s really exciting.

So it’s finally good to see some really useful rehabilitation happening in prison because it’s what we really need the most – work skills followed by social and re-integration skills.

There’s lots of untapped talent in prison so the more work related programmes the better.

Someone once said the prison is just a big barrel of bad apples and I suppose that it’s true to a certain extent but not all of those apples are rotten to the core, most are just a little bruised and rough but can be saved.

We know there are victims and their families but as much as we would like to we can’t change the past only improve the future.

Finally thanks again to all those diners who took the plunge and came out to Rimutaka Prison and shared the experience.

It was a unique event and we are immensely proud to have achieved it.