Beans behind bars: The woman tasked with turning prisoners into baristas

Alice Neville for The Spinoff

As any barista will tell you, making coffee is not an easy job. You're on your feet all day, your hands turn to sandpaper and every inch of you - including your very soul - feels like it has been steeped in coffee.

For every grateful customer whose day has been made by the perfect flat white you've crafted for them, there will be three who stand behind the machine eye-balling you because their extra-hot large takeaway half-strength soy decaf mocha is taking longer than 0.7 of a second to make.

But on the good days, when the coffee gods are smiling upon you and your grind doesn't need constant adjusting, when the customers are charming and your supportive colleagues complement you on every cup of perfection you churn out, it can feel like the best job in the world.

Lauren Tennent has been giving a taste of this bittersweet life to the inmates of Wellington's Arohata Prison for nearly five years.

Tennent was working for local roasters Peoples Coffee while finishing her degree in criminology and psychology when in 2013, the Department of Corrections awarded Peoples a contract to run barista training programmes at Arohata.

It was a one-of-a-kind opportunity for Tennent to combine her skills, and she was asked to develop and run the training.

Opportunities to learn a trade are few and far between at the prison, says Tennent, so the programme has been popular. "I can't walk down the corridor without inmates trying to ask if they can get their name on the list."

Inmates at Arohata Prison are taken through an eight-week barista training programme.
Inmates at Arohata Prison are taken through an eight-week barista training programme. Photo credit: Trade School Industries

The twice-a-week, two-hour sessions run for eight weeks, with a maximum of three women participating at a time. Only one inmate has not completed the training, but Tennent says she's talked a few more out of giving up. "It's self-confidence issues - self-worth and self-belief," she says. "It's just overcoming that and letting them know they'll get there in the end."

At the conclusion of the training, a graduation ceremony is held and the women receive certificates. "I learnt really fast how important a certificate is to them," says Tennent.

Yet on the outside, the women find a certificate often isn't enough to get them a job in one of Wellington's many cafes. "There aren't a lot of people backing them," explains Peoples Coffee founder Matt Lamason. "It's that lack of social capital. Anyone coming out of prison doesn't have that valuable peer-to-peer network."

A few years ago, an ethics lecturer friend introduced him to Homeboys Industries, a Los Angeles-based organisation that works with 10,000 former gang members and ex-prisoners a year through a range of social enterprises, including a cafe, a bakery and a catering company.

Lamason went to LA to visit Homeboys in 2014, and the trip had a profound effect. "I was really moved, not only by the output but by the community of solidarity and respect that inspired me to get Trade School Industries started."

The people behind Homeboys say around 80 percent of staying out of prison comes down to a good job, with the other 20 per cent social support networks. New Zealand has a 49 percent recidivism rate and the female prison population is surging.

In 2015 Lamason held a talk at the NZ Symposium of Gastronomy called "Liberating the Captives: redefining our approach to prisons and prisoners", and after talking to others at the event, came to realise that to really help inmates, support on the outside was key.

This led to him founding the Trade School Industries Trust the following year, with the aim of opening a cafe where the Arohata barista programme graduates could work on their release. Lamason and Tennent were joined on the board by Rimutaka Prison chaplain Alison Robinson, digital marketing entrepreneur Paul Soong and Wellington chef Martin Bosley, who is known for his work with Rimutaka Prison inmates for Wellington on a Plate.

A rendering of Trade School Kitchen, due to open next month.
A rendering of Trade School Kitchen, due to open next month. Photo credit: Trade School Industries

Trade School Kitchen, the trust's Naenae cafe, is now nearing completion and is due to open next month. The fit-out will be funded partly by a PledgeMe campaign that successfully reached its target of $30,000 on Friday. Pledges can still be made until the campaign closes on Sunday night.

"It gives the women an option on release to have support and a community around them," says Tennent of the cafe. "With only the training, we can give them a certificate and a reference letter but in the end, they're still kind of alone out there trying to find a job.

"This gives them more hope that there will be options post-release and that there's a community for them."

Two former Arohata inmates will work in the cafe for six months at a time, after which they'll be assessed and if they're ready, assisted to find work in another cafe or elsewhere, making room for two more graduates from the barista programme. Trade School Industries is aiming to train 30 women per year and the hope is that within five years, the Naenae cafe will be run entirely by those with a prison past.

Arohata inmates Kerri* and Sam*, who, having completed the barista programme themselves, now act as mentors to those going through it, say the benefits of the training can't be overstated.

"Lack of confidence and self-esteem is a common thing here," says Kerri, "so that sense of achievement does make a big difference.

"Giving the women another skill that they can use to find employment and make a living can really help," she adds, "because if you leave here and you've got nothing, all you do is what you know."

Both women have hospitality backgrounds and hope to work at Trade School Kitchen on their release. They're excited about what the future holds.

"It's an amazing opportunity," says Sam. "They're willing to give us a go, and I'm so grateful for that."

*Names have been changed

Alice Neville is The Spinoff's food editor