Peoples Coffee tell Sally Webster about turning prisoners into baristas

There’s nothing quite like pouring a new bag of coffee beans into the grinder, filling the portafilter, leveling it, tamping the grind and then waiting for the espresso machine to produce an artful trickle of 60 milliliters of dark coffee. This, and steaming cold milk into a hot velvety accompaniment is the craft of the barista and a skill that has never been more in demand in New Zealand than today – a land not so much of the long white cloud as the double shot flat white.

The coffee story offers a romantic picture rich with olfactory sensation that we mostly associate with tea breaks, leisure time, down time, indulgence – definitely not with the cold sparseness of doing-time.

But in 2013 ultra-social goodness coffee brand, People’s Coffee, changed this association when they launched a barista training programme at Arohata Women’s Prison, the home patch of the sustainability focused Wellington company. Like a lot of their projects, the intent is to help marginalised Kiwis improve their lot. They’ve just concluded the second programme and are in talks with the prison about how to develop it so more prisoners pick up the skill.

“We just finished the last training round two weeks ago and yes, we are going to be running it again. But how it’s going to roll out going forward will be a little different” says People’s General Manager Liv Doogue.

During the 2013 pilot, the course enabled two groups of eight minimum security prisoners to learn everything about making and serving coffee, from bean to cup. But for the recent course prison staff chose one group of just ten remand prisoners. Offering the course to a smaller group of short-stay inmates meant the Tuesday/Thursday course skills have the best chance of being retained and exercised within a short period of time.

“The course has been a great success but we need to decide if we keep going into the prison to train each of the women, or if we put time into training key inmates who then train other staff” says Doogue.

“The question is, what is the most sustainable model? The aim is to provide real, transferable skills outside the ‘traditional women’s work’ the prison offers and we’ve had such a great response to it from inmates – they are so positive about the training.”

Four prisoners listed why they were so keen on learning the craft.

“At Barista I learned all about the farming of coffee beans to them getting pound into a cup and the techniques of coffee making; I learned how to make coffee on an expert level and gained employment skills; I up-skilled by knowledge of coffee making and enjoyed the privilege of the experience in jail; I gained a whole new positive pathway to follow when I get out – the ability to make coffee in a community environment.”

One of Arohata’s programme coordinators, Tracey Wernicki, is thrilled that making coffee could become a component of prison life for some of their inmates, but says the set up was a mammoth job – it always is the first time.

“There is a lot in the set-up of a programme – not just who delivers the programme but also the security around it. We don’t just let anyone in!

“The three main things we have to cover in considering a programme like this are: personnel and equipment; group/participant suitability; successful implementation, which will mean for instance picking the right room, the right environment, the right security.”

Satisfying this criteria gives the programme the best chance of success.

Another prison spokesperson explained that the main intention of the barista training programme is for women to learn real and credible skills.

“Some of the women may not be in our care for long, so this is an opportunity for them to learn skills they can use when they go back to their community. Women are also learning more than how to make coffee – they’re learning about customer service, communication and are gaining confidence.”

“I love that it gives them hope too” adds Wernicki.“These skills are genuinely in demand ‘on the outside’, so it gives these women a really good chance of getting a job…a higher chance of employment for more people.”

People’s coffee trainers didn’t just teach the women how to make a coffee. They organised customer service role-plays too.

“Trainers had the women pretending to be customers and they would ask them: how are you going to approach this customer? How are you going to write down the order? There were certainly times when there was a bit of laughing going on!”

Ms Wernicki said People’s Coffee had done “an exceptional job” by integrating the service with a full history of coffee and the actual making of it. The tutors had provided an environment that got the best out of the time, relating to inmates in a way they could understand.

“Aside from the obvious job and skill benefits, the course breaks the monotony of prison life” says Ms Doogue. “It also means prisoners get a ‘real’ coffee in prison.”

Prison staff hope to see these women’s barista skills culminate in a special thank you morning tea for the coffee company; the freshly trained baristas will make the coffee while inmates training for their National Certificate in Cookery Level 2 and 3 will produce the food.

Case Basket hopes to track the progress of ex-remand prisoners as they seek the put their skills to the test in a real barista role after release.