Baking in the ‘big house’
by Charlotte Atchley, Baking & Snack
Joining the US Army in 1977, John Dudek trained as a baker and started a lifelong career in foodservice. After active duty, he served in the US Army Reserves and eventually ended up working with correctional facilities. In 1981, he began working as a foodservice supervisor at Illinois’ prisons; however, it wasn’t long before he made the jump from the mass feeding of inmates to the prison system’s wholesale bakery operation. In his 29 years working in correctional foodservice, most were spent as superintendent of Illinois Correctional Industries’ bakery at the Illinois River Correctional Center in Canton, IL, a medium-security adult male prison whose bakery employs inmates and provides bread to the state’s government facilities, including schools.
Many state and federal prisons operate manufacturing facilities within their walls, and they make a wide variety of goods. Illinois Correctional Industries, the corporate umbrella for that state’s activities, produces furniture, uniforms, cleaning supplies, bedding — and baked foods.
For Mr. Dudek, running a correctional industries bakery was much like managing any other wholesale bakery — purchasing ingredients and equipment, hiring and firing workers and managing finances — with the additional aspect of training inmates to work in a bakery and preparing them for life outside of prison. While a corrections bakery may have all the same needs as a normal baking plant, it has the added challenges of security. In this interview with Baking & Snack, Mr. Dudek, who retired from his position as superintendent in 2010, shares his insights on adapting to the needs of inmate bakeries.
Charlotte Atchley: How is a correctional industries bakery similar to other bakeries?
John Dudek: A prison bakery is 80% like a regular bakery except the work environment is with inmates. You have to stop and take a headcount every so often. But you still have to study the market conditions. You have to decide what you’re going to produce. Another challenge is to target your end user, your customer base. Are you going to only provide for the prisons or supply other government entities as well? Then with growth, you have to figure out what type of equipment you want to have.
What are some of the challenges of startup?
It’s very costly getting started. You’re talking $4 million to $6 million to start up, and that probably is not with the delivery trucks. The challenge in the planning is to establish a location that gives you the most serviceability statewide. You’ve got to have a business plan. You’ve got to determine, “Am I just going to feed prisons or all the state entities?” My theory has always been to make it bigger because you’re going to grow in population and product lines.
To save money, a lot of states will reuse buildings, and most weren’t built for bakeries. When you’re converting a building into a foodservice facility, you have many federal and state rules on the construction of the building to make it user friendly and follow all the requirements for safety and sanitation. Some states have found that it has been better to build new than try to use existing facilities because the cost can be equal to or more than new construction.
Challenges remain, however. If the state is putting up a new prison and there are no inmates present, you could build a bakery quickly. When you build or modify an existing building within the facility, then the cost increases terribly because you and your contractors have to walk through a prison gate and all your tools have to be counted. There are only certain working hours, so the time frame for a normal construction project is probably at least 30 to 45% more when you’re building something new in an existing prison.
What are some of the benefits to correctional facility bakeries?
Nowadays, with the way the economy is and so many states cash-strapped, correctional industries offer a good value especially on the food side. You have to feed an inmate three meals a day, and correctional industries are only allowed to sell to government entities: school districts, mental health facilities, veterans homes, anything operated by the state, federal or local government. At Illinois Correctional Industries, we also supplied federal prisons, and it was at a much reduced price compared to a mainstream bakery. We weren’t trying to put them out of business, but we were trying to be fair to the taxpayers of Illinois — that’s the real value. And it’s a dual value: We’re training the inmates so you don’t have a revolving door with inmates coming back and then, of course, the state gains cost savings.
How do the inmates benefit?
The inmates are being trained. Work in the bakery gets them out of the cell house. Without those jobs, they sit in a cell for 24 hours a day and only get out for meals and gym time. What you have is a very captive labor force that should be used.
I’m a great advocate of correctional industries programs, especially foodservice, because this field offers the easiest entry-level job for an inmate getting out. It pays minimum wage, but at least it pays something. So many inmates leave prison with nowhere to go, and it’s very difficult.
Do you face a perception challenge with the products?
Yes, there can be the attitude from staff that they don’t want to eat it because they think the inmates are putting something in the bread, which they’re not because the inmates have to eat it, too. There is, believe it or not, a little bit of penitentiary inmate ethic, where they would not do that. I’m not going to say it never happens, but I never experienced anything being found in bread. Sometimes, during processing, something breaks off of a machine into the product, but that happens in the real world, too.
How does security factor into the operation?
Wardens and the security side of a prison are there to ensure public safety — that inmates don’t escape, that they don’t harm one another and, above all, that inmates don’t harm staff. On occasion, we encountered security staffers who don’t necessarily think that industry programs are good because they have to move the inmates from point A to point B. They have to strip them down. That was always a constant: trying to walk that fine line because you needed security. You couldn’t piss off the security staff because if something goes down, they have to come and save you. They can either walk, or they can run. Hopefully, they will run to save us if something is going on.
What do suppliers need to know?
It’s a real challenge for the supplier’s technicians to come in. They just can’t walk in. With some vendors, their sales people won’t go in prisons because they’re afraid. Some people don’t want a confrontation with an inmate. You have to be professional and dress professionally, too. You can’t be an inmate’s friend. You’re attitude needs to be, “I’m just here to do my job and teach you and then make sure you learn it.”
To be installed in a prison bakery, equipment has to be modified so inmates can’t take parts off and make weapons out of them. So we had to get “prison packages.” For example, we had two packaging machines and a slicing system, and the packaging and slicing machines had to be modified so inmates could not take the parts off and make shanks out of them. And those packages always come with an added cost.
Also, be aware what it takes when you come into a prison. The supplier’s staff must do their homework and talk to the management. Security will provide a list of rules. You can’t bring anything in. It’s very important to follow directions. Then when you’re inside, someone from the prison will escort you the entire time.
A lot of times, vendors come in and want to bring their thermometers, computers and other things. It’s hard to just get a catalog through. You can’t get pushy. You have to go with the flow. It’s a challenging situation, and vendors must have patience and send the right people.
It really takes time to become familiar with the system. It takes a special personality that’s going to be able to follow directions to a tee. But the effort is all worth it and returns value to the bakery’s customers, its inmate employees and to the state’s taxpayers.