CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA – Inmates at the San Diego Women’s Prison in Cartagena get a taste of freedom every night as they morph into cooks, waitresses and dishwashers at “Interno,” a colorful restaurant now open in one of the facility’s indoor patios.
Twenty-five of the nearly 180 inmates housed here were selected as part of a program launched five months ago by Teatro Interno Foundation, looking to help women near the end of their sentences transition back into society.
Inmates at this low-security prison are serving time for crimes such as theft, drug trafficking and extortion.
Karen Paternina Benítez, 28, who was convicted of extortion, says that when she is working at the restaurant she forgets she's in prison.
“Here you keep yourself entertained. When you enter the restaurant you forget of everything in there,” she told Fox News.
“[You forget] that you are deprived of your freedom, you meet new people and opportunities,” added Paternina Benítez, who is planning to open a restaurant when she is released later this year. “You are no longer worried that you are going to be rejected out there but know that [society] is waiting for you with open arms.”
All proceeds from Interno, which seats 60 people (dinner only, Tuesday through Sunday ), go to improving the prison’s facilities and pay the women a modest salary. So far, the restaurant’s profits have bought bunk beds and funded a new kitchen and dining room, which is currently under construction.
The women who work the kitchen at Interno were trained by some of the most highly-regarded chefs in the country, each of whom volunteered some of their top recipes.
About 20 inmates are responsible for the vegetable garden on site that supplies Interno and more than 40 keep themselves busy at the prison’s bakery.
Each night, the menu is made up of three fixed meals, with options such as fried carimañola (a pastry stuffed with meat), posta cartagenera (meat with sweet sauce) and a fish catch of the day with mango cocktail plus fresh farm vegetables.
“We don’t want to sell just food. What we are looking for in our projects is to have spaces for reconciliation between civil society and the inmates,” said Johana Bahamón, the restaurant’s director and head of Teatro Interno.
She said that since the place opened in November, more than 2,400 people have enjoyed the traditional dishes in the menu — among the diners: Colombia's Justice Minister Enrique Gil Botero and local star, singer Carlos Vives.
In the last five years, Bahamón explained, the Teatro Interno Foundation has held acting workshops and a variety of projects in prisons across the nation.
“We aim for jails to become not just penitentiary centers but productive spaces,” she said.
Still, behind the restaurant’s pink doors, inmates in San Diego live a tight and precarious life. Currently 180 live in the facility, the only female prison in Cartagena-- even though it has a maximum capacity of 50.
Now, however, each inmate has a bed and, more importantly, many of the women are acquiring the confidence and resolve to give their lives a second start after time in prison.
“I used to be afraid of leaving jail. But now, with this project, I’m not longer afraid of anything,” Paternina said. “Here you get ready and prepared to face the world out there."
Ana Luisa Gonzalez is a freelancer living in Bogota, Colombia.