Passing along the lamp-lit, cobblestone streets of colonial Cartagena´s most picturesque neighborhood, Barrio San Diego, you’ll come across a building that seems completely out of place with its charming surroundings.
If you inquire into the nature of building, you’ll likely be taken aback. It’s a women’s prison.
Even stranger, the prison features a restaurant. Step inside Restaurante Interno (Inmate Restaurant) and you’ll find one of the most innovative and successful prisoner reintegration programs to have been introduced in Latin America.
Here, female inmates in pink turbans cook and serve locally sourced food in a trendy, hip dining area that’s decked out with pink décor, murals of tropical flora, and comfortable pink cushions.
Inspired by Milan´s InGalera restaurant – an establishment founded on a similar concept – Restaurante Interno is staffed almost entirely by the female inmates of San Diego Prison. Having just opened in December of 2015 with the aid of the Acción Interna, a foundation dedicated to inmates, the prisoners have been trained through a series of workshops provided by professional waitstaff and celebrity chefs – including acclaimed Spanish chef Koldo Miranda.
Thus far, visitors have come flocking. But the objective is not just great food or financial gain. Interno was created for the sake of offering its prison population occupational training and social skills for life outside its big, imposing walls.
The restaurant’s 1-year anniversary in December will nearly coincide with the first anniversary of the much less celebrated report by Colombia´s Comptroller General on overcrowding and unsatisfactory conditions in the country’s prison system.
The report details how in spite of several investment programs Colombia´s prisoners still endure deplorable conditions in centers that are currently 54 percent over capacity.
What is more, prisoners who finish their sentences are most times set adrift unskilled to face a population that does not trust them.
Former Colombian actress Johana Bahamón, who has assisted Acción Interna, explained to NBC News how Restaurante Interno has offered these women hope in the face of such odds. “They’re instantly judged, but most of them are just human beings who’ve made mistakes,” she said. “They’ve had the best training and many of them already have jobs in other restaurants.”
“They’re now earning an honest living and are able to start a new life,” she said.
The 60-seat restaurant has attracted guests such as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and singer Carlos Vives. Meanwhile, a number of former inmates have already gone on to open their own businesses.
Inmate Johana Guevara, who spoke with NBC news, hopes to become one of them.
“This isn’t an ordinary restaurant, and every woman here has struggled with feelings of guilt and shame,” Guevara says. “We want to show the public that we deserve a second chance.”