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Why We Want to Eat in Prison (Response to ‘A pasta you can’t refuse’; The Globe and Mail, 23 May 2008, Page A2)

The article (referenced below) talks about a restaurant located inside an Italian prison, where selected inmates cook and serve high-end dishes to the public. The project is for charity purposes and also used to give inmates valuable experience to prepare them for life after prison, as well as to break up the monotony of prison life. The article describes many of the benefits for the inmates and provides some brief reactions from the paying customers.

I would like to consider a little bit more deeply the perspective of the customers. More specifically, I want to explore the thoughts and intentions of the customers who purposely select a prison restaurant for a night out, or even as part of a vacation package. My purpose is not to pour cold water on such an excellent project, and not to put words into others? mouths, but just to admit that there naturally may be other thoughts going on in the public’s mind while they go through this unique experience.

One customer quoted in the article mentioned about the high quality of food. But if it were just for the standard of food, shouldn’t there be many other options available not in the vicinity of a prison? Even for her, there must be ‘unsaid’ reasons besides just the quality of food. What kind of people purposely select this type of destination? Let’s discuss some potential reasons.

Curiosity. Fine dining combined with prisoners providing the service. What does that even look like? It certainly stirs wonder in many people. Will the inmates behave? Will the service be similar to what we would expect in 5-star hotels? From the tone of the article, it seems like the prisoners do reach those lofty standards.

Novelty. It’s definitely an experience that can be retold to friends and family, and have it stand out from what others did on a weekend. Just the statement ‘I went to eat at a prison’ may elicit shock, surprise, and even admiration. And a bite of food certainly has more meaning and possibilities than a bite of food at a regular restaurant. You don’t just eat. It’s not just about taste. There must be more contemplations about who cooked it and what the server did in his life prior to being here. For sure, eyes are much more open in such an environment. I wonder what this does to your taste palates? Does it heighten it even more? Might there even be just a slight tinge of fear as well? Does this enhance the eating experience?

Easy to be pleased and have things exceed your expectations. Is it possible that the customers could be delighted by slightly above average food because it has already exceeded what they would expect in a prison? Would the same food at other ‘regular’ restaurants be judged with more stricter criteria? The word ‘prison’ comes with connotations and images of dirtiness, rough and tough talk and slang, violence. So, when the customer sees none of this in the restaurant, they are already in a pleasant and upbeat mood before the food even arrives. The scenario is set up well for success. I wonder if other businesses can try to adopt some of this in their operations?

Sense of hope. Deep down we really want to believe that it is possible for prisoners to reform themselves in the justice system and improve to the point of being productive members of society again. Coming to the prison to eat and socialize with the prisoners can maybe give validation to that possibility? We see that there is good in all of us? Maybe we see some of ourselves in the prisoners and at one time in our lives we strayed onto a wrong path and were lucky to have another chance and avoid jail. Perhaps by supporting their restaurant is our way of giving them another chance, and to communicate that we support their efforts to change.

For myself, when I first read the article, my initial reaction was to put it on my list of places to visit before I die. Why? Probably because of the combination of reasons hypothesized above. But I do hope, overall, that I’m leaning towards optimistically believing that no matter what the reality is, it feels good to see a place brimming with so much potential. However, at the same time, I worry about being too idealistic when reflecting from a distance. Honestly, when I go, I dont know how I will react when being served by a hand that once took another person’s life away. Should I mind? Should I forgive? Or is this event not a place to be considering these type of issues? I don’t know. All I know is that I must go to find out and it’s an important part of living.

-Patrick Law

The referenced Globe and Mail article is also available at this address: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080523.wjailfood23/BNStory/International/home

A pasta you can?t refuse
The Globe and Mail
23 May 2008

In what might be Italy?s most exclusive restaurant, security is understandably tight. That?s because it?s a prison. On reservation, guests are subjected to a background check. They are admitted in groups, their mobile phones and bags confiscated, and…read more…


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