Baking behind bars: Inmates churn out loaves of bread for jail system

By Verena Dobnik
Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Each morning, and again in the afternoon, the blades of three bread-slicing machines are counted carefully. Only then does the bakery let workers go home — to their jail cells on Rikers Island.

Twenty inmates of one of the nation’s largest jail complexes are part of a team that bakes 36,000 loaves of bread a week to feed the city’s entire population behind bars — about 13,000 people.

Employees in orange-and-white-striped jumpsuits and surgical caps earn $31 a week churning out whole wheat bread.

There’s not an apron in sight

The prison bakers say they are learning skills that may keep them gainfully employed once they get out.

“I’m learning teamwork,” says prisoner Nikos Alexis, 24, as he walks off in black leather boots caked with flour. He’s serving a four-month sentence for possession of a forged instrument, according to correction records.

It’s a privilege to get this work assignment; only inmates already sentenced to one year or less in jail are considered.

Most of the other Rikers residents are awaiting trial on charges including murder.

The bakers behind bars get up before dawn and climb into a van for the ride to the other side of the 413-acre island in the East River between Queens and the Bronx.

Passing a double row of razor wire-topped fences, they enter the mammoth, single-story bakery around 6 a.m., guarded by correction officers with a captain and a deputy warden.

By the loading dock, a sign in the glass window of a supervisor’s office reads: “FAKE & BAKE” — a small try at making people smile in this grim community.

More than culinary discipline is needed in this kitchen — part of a jail system where arguments between inmates or with guards can erupt in a flash, resulting in stabbings and slashings.

In December, a Rikers correction officer had part of his thumb bitten off by an inmate.

So far, the bakery itself remains violence-free.

But it’s a dynamic, noisy place. Dangers include fast-moving industrial machinery tagged with hands-off warning signs and blinking yellow lights.

The baking process starts in giant metal tubs where 1,600 pounds of dough is mixed for each batch — half white flour and half the darker one — and hoisted with a lift into a machine that divides it into balls that are shaped and fed into corn oiled pans.

The finished bread is stored in a walk-in refrigerator with the words “Fort Knox” whimsically chiseled into its steel door.

The soothing smell of warm, freshly baked bread drifts across the 11,000-square-foot space, a labyrinth of white-coated metal machines mixing, shaping, baking, slicing and packing the loaves.

The men take turns at various stations, from mixing the flours in the tubs — “an awesome kind of combination,” says Alexis — to working the ovens.

The brows of three young men drip with sweat as they gently load 240 risen loaves into a giant oven — a sea of dough that emerges golden a half hour later.

In summer, with only fans whirring overhead, the air is hotter than the bread.

“Man, it gets hot — sometimes up to 120 degrees!” says Aubrey Simpson, the supervising baker and a civilian who was once an army officer in his native Guyana.

Above a conveyor belt is a sign in Gothic script that reads: “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread.” And the Rikers bakery does — tens of thousands of wax-paper-wrapped loaves that fill two storage
rooms, ready to be trucked out.

The bakery’s products are not for sale to the public — even though prisoners agree it’s tasty enough to succeed outside the island.

“I would definitely give it a thumbs up and say it’s better than the bread I buy at the store,” says inmate Taiwan Taylor, 32, who’s serving an eight-month sentence for criminal trespass.

Taylor loves to bite into a fresh slice on his 10 a.m. break.

“It’s delicious when it’s warm, when it first comes out of the oven,” he says.

At about 1 p.m., the day’s baking is done. Then come the cleanup and maintenance of equipment, most of it dating to the 1960s.

“It’s old, and any minute, something could go wrong,” says chief mechanic Andrew Sonni, also a civilian and Guyanese native who keeps dog-eared repair logs in his tiny office off the bakery floor.

Tacked to a wall next to a pinup girl is a booklet with a two-word reminder scribbled on it in bold letters: “COUNT BLADES.”

Keeping track of the blades in the slicing machines is a security measure to keep inmates from spiriting away any object “that might be turned into a handmade weapon,” says Stephen Morello, a
Department of Correction spokesman.

But the incarcerated bakers appear more interested in good behavior that could get them sprung early than in harming each other.

Until two years ago, the jail bakery made only white bread. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a nutrition task force opted for the healthier wheat loaves.

And to meet city budget cuts, prisoners in New York City now get a maximum ration of six half-inch slices a day, instead of the previous eight — saving the city $350,000 a year.

For holidays, the prisoners also make “the best carrot cake I have ever tasted,” Alexis says.

Simpson, the senior baker, made some changes in a recipe already in use when he started working at Rikers more than 20 years ago.

When fellow baker Kay Fraser — also a civilian employee born in Guyana — arrived about five years ago, she tweaked the recipe some more.

“I put in less cloves and allspice, and more ginger,” she says. “And I add a lot of love.”

The work is done in 25-loaf batches, using 25 pounds of sugar, 25 pounds of eggs and 25 pounds of shredded carrots.

When the cakes — shaped like bread loaves — emerge from the oven, she lets them cool. Then comes her special touch: wrap them in wax paper and refrigerate them “to seal the moisture.”

In April, Alexis expects to cross the bridge linking the island jail with Queens — and freedom.

“I want to just get back on my feet and do things the right way,” he says, “and bake bread for my mother.”