Special delivery: Inmates can order pizza right to their cell

CHICAGO — How can you get a gourmet Italian pizza delivered right to your door for no more than $7? Get locked up at Cook County Jail in Chicago.

Inmates in the jail’s medium-security Division 11 can now order pizzas made with the finest ingredients in the kind of ovens found in pizzerias. It’s all part of Sheriff Tom Dart’s ongoing effort to make jail a bit more humane while providing inmates skills that might help keep them from returning once they’re set free.

Pizzas have been served and prepared behind bars before. A few institutions allow inmates to order from nearby restaurants. At one Massachusetts jail, inmates make pizzas that guards can buy and take home and heat themselves.

But it’s safe to say Dart is the first jail administrator to bring into his facility an Italian chef to oversee an operation in which inmates bake a couple hundred pizzas a week in a $16,000 oven and deliver them piping hot to the cells of captive customers.

“We’re teaching skills to make them more marketable when they get out of here,” Dart said.

At the same time, by giving inmates a break from the bland jail food, he’s employing what experts say is an effective tactic to keep inmates in line.

“If any detainee assaults staff or engages in misconduct they’re moved out of that division, and they’re not able to purchase the pizzas,” said Cara Smith, the department’s chief policy officer. “So it’s an incentive to behave.”

Other programs Dart has introduced include using chess to teach inmates about problem-solving and patience, and sending inmates from the jail’s boot camp to tear down abandoned buildings.

The pizza delivery service is an outgrowth of a program called “Recipe for Change” that’s run by Bruno Abate, a chef and owner of trendy Chicago restaurant Tocco , that teaches inmates about cooking and nutrition. Abate said there’s no overstating the effect gourmet pizza has in a place where the drab food only reminds inmates of where — and what — they are.

“This is treating people with dignity and respect as a human and not (an) animal,” he said.

The pizza also might be the best food some of the desperately poor inmates have ever eaten.

“How many of them even get to go to a decent restaurant?” asked Ron Gidiwtz, a prominent Republican fundraiser who donated money to buy the oven and raised the rest.

When the inmates bring the pizzas to the cells, the effect, inmates say, is immediate.

“Their eyes light up like it’s Christmas,” said Jonathan Scott, whose nametag reads “Chef Jonathan,” as he waits for trial on an armed robbery charge.

Dart said he decided to sell the pizzas to raise money for the program. Initially, he planned to have the inmates sell them to correctional officers. But the jailers weren’t interested in buying food prepared by inmates who might take the opportunity to add something to the recipe.

Dart said they also groused that inmates were being coddled. So the sheriff decided to give the inmates, who can already use their own money to buy things like chips, a chance to purchase pizzas.

Dart now hopes he can get his hands on a food truck and sell his pizza outside the jail and nearby courthouse, where good food is hard to find.

Gidwitz is game to raise money for the truck, too. But he wonders why Dart would stop there.

“Maybe,” he said, “you could get trustees to sit right outside the jail and sell pizzas from there.”

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