San Diego Women’s Prison is a dark, imposing building with barred windows and blistering paint. Unlike a typical American prison, there is no razor wire or guard towers. A sign hangs over the entrance barring weapons and visitation outside of Saturday and Sunday. It’s nondescript facade fades into the background as Cartagena’s historic center buzzes around it. What grabs your attention, if perhaps you are confused and staring at your Google Maps saying “this cannot be a restaurant,” is the tiny bright pink entrance to your left, enlivened with the sounds of a packed dining room.
This is Restaurante Interno, our dinner spot on our last humid night in Cartagena. The bright pink accents and florals walls look no different from other upscale bars and restaurants we had visited that week. The dining room is intimate—all the wooden tables are occupied and are placed close together, arranged neatly around potted plants. The staff in the restaurant is mostly women, all wearing t-shirts that say “Yo creo en las segundas oportunidades,” or “I believe in second chances,” with hair swept up neatly in hot pink headwraps.
These women, while cooking for and serving customers at Interno, are also serving time at the prison next door.
The carceral setting is also one of culinary achievement; Interno is a destination restaurant for travelers to Cartagena. Women pass dishes of fish ceviche with coconut milk and ripe banana, and catch of the day in roasted coconut salsa through a hatch at the back of the restaurant, barred off from the main dining room. Dessert is arroz de leche, or rice pudding with citrus reduction and jardin de cocadas, a light coconut mixture. A meal at Interno is absurdly cheap—for 90,000 COP (roughly, $25 USD), diners receive an appetizer, main dish, dessert and a traditional Colombian fruit juice like pina de mente, or pineapple with mint and limonada de coconut, or coconut lemonade.
Of the 175,000 incarcerated people in Colombia, 23% are women. Fundación Acción Interna, the organization behind Restaurante Interno was founded by Johana Bahamon to “dignify and improve the quality of life of the inmates and those [who] have already been released in Colombia.” Incarcerated women who work at Interno are trained for job opportunities in the restaurant industry upon release. In addition to Restaurante Interno, the organization offers other programs in prisons in Colombia such as addiction support, yoga, and study grants.
The intervention model Interno uses isn’t the first of its kind. The Clink is a non-profit organization that operates fine dining restaurants in four prisons in the United Kingdom. Italy has its own model with Ingalera, a restaurant set in a medium-security prison in Milan. Many others around the world employ formerly incarcerated individuals, such as DriveChange, a New York-based food truck-turned-culinary institute that employs men who had been previously incarcerated on Rikers Island. Each prison restaurant aims to equip incarcerated individuals with the skills necessary to thrive once released into the community. For Restaurante Interno, results have been overwhelmingly positive.
Note: As of December 2019, Restaurante Interno is temporarily closed following the relocation of San Diego Women's Prison in Cartagena.