SoCal Connected on KCET

Beyond Bars: Prison Recipes

Original Airdate July 2, 2014; Updated September 3, 2014

Jennifer Sabih: Women come straight from prison to this halfway house here in Claremont and they’ve only got three things. 1. 200 dollars in their pocket; 2. the clothes on their back; And 3. A skill they can only learn behind bars....

Jennifer Sabih: Jackie White loved cooking for her family it was the one thing she felt she could do well. But all of that was put on the backburner when she became addicted to drugs and arrested so many times she lost count.

In and out of prison for 17 years. 17 years where cooking, the one thing that made Jackie feel worth something, was outlawed.

Jackie White: Basically everything is against the rules to have. Anything that you might really need – that knife, anything.

Jennifer Sabih: But inmates got around the rules in clever ways. They key was this gadget.

Jackie White: These are spoons, black electrical cord and wood to keep them from touching.

Jennifer Sabih: It’s called a stinger. And it boils water. Hot water is the key to cell block cooking. For Jackie, the stinger was a lifesaver.

Jackie White: The cooking brought back home and all the things I needed to make me alright for one day.

Jennifer Sabih: And what are you going to cook for us today, Jackie?

Jackie White: I'm gonna cook my famous potato soup. First I’m going to use this stinger and I’m going to put it in the water and plug it up. That’s going to heat the water up.

Jennifer Sabih: What’s the next step?

Jackie White: Well I’m going to do my layering while I’m waiting for the pepperoni to get hot. First I’m going to put a layer of sour cream in a bowl. Then I’m going to put a creamer. Then anything with a zest or seasoning. It will usually be at the bottom of pork loins or hot Cheetos.

Jennifer Sabih: Layer and repeat. Add stringer-heated water. Stir, shake, and mix. The soup has risen and so has Jackie’s self-respect.

Jackie White: So in prison I really felt lost a lot of times. I was recovering from my addiction in prison and needing something to bring me back and cooking something, preparing something made me feel worthy.

Jennifer Sabih: It was time to sit down for lunch with the other women in the program. Each dish, made with a stinger including one former inmate’s specialty she calls Hot Pockets with a view.

Sheila Rosses: I made that dish because when I used to cook in my room I had a..we used to look outside the gate at the free world because you can see through the barbed wire fence and we used to wonder when we’ll be on the other side of the gate. So I called it Hot Pockets with a View.

Jennifer Sabih: After 29 years Sheila finally got to the view on the other side of the bars and like 30 other women a year released from one of three California women’s petitionary, Sheila volunteered to spend half year at Crossroads Transitional House, where women inmates learn to reenter a real new world.

Sister Terry Dodge: Well it’s a real culture shock when you’ve done so much time and you’re released. The technology has changed tremendously. One of the things we try to help the women to do is to stop, and slow down. Because after being away for so long it’s only natural to be up on everything. That’s what they feel, that they don’t know their way around. They need to be working immediately. And what they really need to do is to be able to just sit down and be with themselves.

Jennifer Sabih: Each woman here will tell you straight up, they will not return to prison. But sadly, for the majority of women released from California penitentiaries the statistics are not on their side. A staggering 59 percent will end up back behind bars within three years but the recidivism rate for Crossroads women is dramatically lower.

Look, potato chip soap may not be everyone’s cup of tea but you can taste the heart that went into preparing this lunch a meal made by the hands of some remarkably resilient women who spent the majority of their lives behind bars. Those years are behind them, in front of them hopes and dreams.

I plan on going to culinary arts school. I love to cook.

I should graduate next year and hopefully I’ll be working for Crossroads.

Jennifer Sabih: Jackie’s journey went from inmate, to Crossroads resident, to case manager, to project manager of the entire place.

Jackie White: I volunteer. I’m an outstanding citizen, and I pay taxes, and I love my life today.

Jennifer Sabih: The women have published a book of their collected recipes and stories called “Stinging for their Suppers.” It was one thing they didn’t mind bringing out from their years of being incarcerated but they are adamant, never to find themselves in one of those cells again.

Jackie White: I’ve been there, done that, and this is so much better.

Jennifer Sabih: I’m Jennifer Sabih for “SoCal Connected.”

Crossroads is a rehabilitation house in Claremont that provides recently incarcerated women the chance to rebuild their lives. The six month program equips women with new skills and a support system to help make a smooth transition into everyday life.

Jackie White is a former inmate who has been in and out of prisons for 17 years. In this episode of "SoCal Connected," she shares her famous potato soup recipe: A combination of potato chips, creamer, pepperoni, and a bag of Hot Cheetos.

With little to no resources to cook their meals, inmates are forced to come up with creative ways to heat up their food. White used a stinger tool made out of old electrical chords and spoons. To get even more creative, White used the lids of canned food to substitute as a knife for cutting vegetables and meat.

"In prison, I really felt lost at times. I was recovering from my addiction in prison and needed something to bring me back," White told reporter Jennifer Sabih. "Cooking for myself and preparing something made me feel worthy and good. That brought back a taste of home and kept me sane."

White is now the program director for Crossroads.

The women of Crossroads also teamed up with Scripps College Writing Program director Kim Drake to combine more recipes and inspirational stories in a published book, "Stinging for their Suppers."

Find out how to make potato soup and other recipes with just the help of a stinger and a few simple ingredients in this episode of "SoCal Connected."

Featuring Interviews With:

  • Jackie White, former inmate
  • Sheila Rosses, Crossroads graduate
  • Sister Terry Dodge, executive director, Crossroads


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