In a sweeping acknowledgment of the risks of coronavirus in cramped prisons, New Jersey began last November the early release of what will amount to more than 3,000 inmates in the coming months. With this steep rise in the parolee population, programs like CookWell are more critical than ever. In response to the need for stronger re-entry support, CookWell has designed a catering program with a two-pronged approach: we’ll raise the number of parolees we train, and under the guidance of a professional chef, they will supply appetizing meals to clients of contracting agencies, such as peers residing in halfway houses. Our goal by 2023 is to train as many as 40 returning citizens a year and to provide healthy food to hundreds of people in need.

Building on the success of CookWell, plans are also afoot for WorkWell, a pilot program to bring job-readiness training to ex-offenders, equipping them to find and sustain employment. This new program, to be launched in partnership with Philadelphia-based Uplift Solutions during 2021, will provide broad-based job-readiness training, life-skills support, case management, and mentoring, followed by job-specific training by a cooperating employer. Trainees will receive stipends to give them motivation and the dignity of earning income during their six-week training period.

CookWell and WorkWell will offer more than just job training. They combine vocational instruction with life-skills guidance, mentorship, and on-the-job experience, a collaboration that draws on the expertise and support of partner agencies, employers, universities, foundations, and friends. The best response to the challenge of early prison release is summed up in our mission: Working together to equip returning citizens with job skills, dignity and hope.

For more on the prisoner release effort in New Jersey, click here.