Prep cook Angelo Paul shuffled around various jobs after incarceration before landing at Alta Adams. (Ural Garrett/AfroLA)

Local chef offers ‘second chances’ to formerly incarcerated people

Finding employment after being incarcerated can be a complicated and daunting process. It’s something Keith Corbin understands quite well. Serving roughly a decade in prison for drugs, he found a knack for cooking while behind bars. But when he got out, he faced a new set of challenges.

“When I started off, I didn’t have no one to look towards in this field,” said Corbin.

Depending on the job, certain criminal charges or even lack of experience may pose significant obstacles in the shift from incarceration to civilian life, a transition that more than 600,000 people make each year in the U.S., according to the Prison Policy Initiative. In California alone, approximately 40,000 people are released from state prisons annually, according to the Workforce Development Board.

Last August, Corbin released his memoir, California Soul: An American Epic of Cooking and Survival. It tells the story of how he grew up in Watts learning to cook from his grandmother before getting caught up selling drugs in his adolescence.

Later, as a free man, he found a job working as a kitchen manager under popular Los Angeles chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson at the Watts restaurant Locol. After Locol closed in 2018, Corbin struck out on his own. 

He’s now the co-owner and chef at Alta Adams restaurant in L.A.’s West Adams neighborhood. 

One of the initiatives he wanted to push as an entrepreneur was to give formerly incarcerated individuals looking for work an opportunity. 

“The fact that I was able to become an author, executive producer, own a restaurant and hire people that come from situations like mine…means my number one responsibility is to be [that] representation to people that are starting out,” he said.

Alongside small businesses like Alta Adams that are trying to make a difference, local government is also addressing the difficulties of reentry after being incarcerated.

Between the lack of resources many formerly incarcerated individuals face and probation terms that require some form of employment, recidivism, or the likelihood a previously convicted person will re-offend, is astronomically high in California. About 45% of people released from the state’s prison system were convicted again within three years, according to fiscal year 2015-16 data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Of those, nearly 19% committed a new crime or violated parole within their first year of release. 

To combat this, L.A.’s “Care First, Jails Last” initiative provides intensive case management for formerly incarcerated people to help them successfully reintegrate into society. 

“People are being connected to a case manager, and they’re connected to all the services that they need,” said Songhai Armstead, interim director of the L.A. County Justice, Care and Opportunities Department, “whether it’s housing or employment or social connections, social services, mental health services, food or whatever their needs are.” She currently heads the “Care First, Jails Last” initiative, and said they also have programs that focus on training and employment, along with voter registration and housing.

Armstead is a retired Superior Court judge. During her time in that role, she had one of the best records for reducing recidivism in the county.

“It’s really focusing on, how do you deliver justice in a way that’s equitable across the board?” said Armstead. “[It’s] providing the services and opportunities to folks so that they are able to stay out of the justice system, [and] if they’re in the justice system be moved from the justice system or [return] back to community in the way that we’re supposed to.”

Job availability is another issue which the “Care First, Jails Last” initiative hopes to solve. According to Vanessa Martin, director of the Reentry Division for the Justice, Care and Opportunities Department, they hope to make a dent in sectors that don’t historically serve the formerly incarcerated population.

“We’re so used to hearing about construction jobs and the typical jobs that are pretty low barrier to entry,” said Martin. “So, we are focused on things like IT, health care, green jobs and advanced manufacturing. These jobs can really—if you provide the correct and the robust skills training there—have huge impacts in terms of earnings and employment over time.”

Back at Corbin’s Alta Adams restaurant, General Manager Asia Stewart-Howell said that taking a more responsible attitude toward their hiring of formerly incarcerated individuals was key to their success.

Keith Corbin (center) and his team (left to right), Rashad Joy, Fatoumata Bee and Asia Stewart-Howell, pose for a photo together at his Alta Adams restaurant. (Ural Garrett/AfroLA)

“I think hiring has a big aspect in this success and retention — giving second chances to people and understanding where they come from,” Stewart-Howell explained. “It’s kind of a different level of care with employees, empathy and thinking more in terms of investing in the staff, not just punishing them for labels or firing people for labels. [It’s] giving people chances even when they’re maybe not qualified.” 

Edward Hamilton, 23, is a line cook at Alta who hopes to dive deeper into the food industry someday. Hamilton got the job after his aunt saw Corbin’s story on Instagram and advised him to apply. Months into the job, he said he doesn’t feel so “othered” due to his background.

“It’s just the atmosphere where I’m not looked at as too much due to me once being locked up,” said Hamilton. “That’s never the case, and I’m just myself. Everybody here is individual and that individuality just drew me.”

Angelo Paul, 24, who is now a prep cook, recalled a moment after being released from prison where his belief in himself was shaken by the tough job market.

“It’s really hard to find a job once you get out,” said Paul. “It’s a confidence thing not knowing whether you’re going to be able to get accepted for the job or whether they’re going to turn you down. Putting your first foot out there is always hard. Corbin gave me my opportunity when I came back.” 

Corbin said he realized that when it comes to formerly incarcerated people reintegrating into society, there needs to be a culture of understanding and forgiveness that stretches across both individuals and systems. 

“How can you be aware of these traps that are set up for me as a youth and then when I fall into the trap, you blame me or you turn your back on me or ostracize me, or I have this scarlet letter on my back?” asked Corbin. “It’s just about being more empathetic.”

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