HoTrEd DC Academy

Proposal for a Hospitality Training and Education Academy at the DC Jail

by Daniel A. Rosen |

“He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” -Victor Hugo

I. THE WHY: An Idea Born in a Jail Cell

In 1994, David J. Rothman wrote that “The least controversial observation one can make about American criminal justice today is that it is remarkably ineffective, absurdly expensive, grossly inhumane, and riddled with discrimination.” More than twenty five years later, little has changed and it’s just as true. When I read that passage in 2015, sitting in a jail cell in Washington, DC, I knew I had to do something to change the situation. After five years of careful thought: the HoTrEd DC Academy is that thing.

One of the main observations I took away from my time in the DC Jail was just how much potential exists within its cinderblock walls – raw energy, heart, creativity and entrepreneurial motivation being wasted and neglected. When I left, I wrote to the Warden expressing one wish: that every inmate should have the chance to participate in something like a re-entry program. I was able to take part in the DCDOC’s re-entry program, as well as a short hospitality class offered by a local university. But 98 percent of the inmates there have no such chance, and are simply being warehoused and killing time, many for years.

Once you’re immersed in a travesty like this, you can’t unsee it – it becomes an obligation to improve this rift in the world, even if just a little bit. And the question becomes: How can all that potential be harnessed in a way that benefits both society and the individuals involved?

My answer is to marry all that talent and raw energy to some existing gap in the local economy, a clear need. And in the DC area, first-hand experience living and working there tells me that the region’s largest business sector, the hospitality and service industry – even while hard-hit recently by the COVID-19 pandemic- could usefully employ many of those creative people in a number of new and productive ways. The DC Jail is full of almost endless needs and the hospitality industry will not address them all, but it can help. Similar initiatives in Cleveland and Houston have borne fruit recently.

DC is well-positioned to support this endeavor in several ways, even as the hospitality industry recovers from COVID-19. The city has had and will again have: a fulsome restaurant and bar industry with one of the leading food scenes in the nation; socially active and aware chefs who support community initiatives; a mature and perennially active convention and benefit business; a robust sports and entertainment industry with several major franchises (MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS) in the city; more hotels per square block than most other cities in the U.S.; numerous educational institutions with relevant curricula; an affluent populace and massive visitor base that keeps the industry afloat; and existing programs in the DC jail that serve as an excellent foundation for a more in-depth effort. Finally, the hospitality and service industry requires a constant influx of young and well-trained talent, and provides a useful outlet for energetic and motivated returning citizens.

A word about the pandemic that’s hit the hospitality industry particularly hard is in order. With so much of this sector currently struggling to survive or recover, it may be some time before an initiative like the Academy is again possible. There must obviously be real need and human or financial capacity to sponsor this kind of training program. The Academy may not be able to begin its initial operations until 2023 or 2024, but business certainly will recover over the coming years. Now is the time to plan for the day when DC’s hospitality industry is as strong as or stronger than it was at the start of this decade. And this initiative can be part of that new era of growth and success.

II. THE WHAT: The HoTrEd DC Academy – Mission and Functions

Hospitality training and education offers many potential paths for returning citizens to pursue their passions and earn a living wage once they return to the streets. The Academy will serve five core functions of: 1) training and education; 2) job placement; 3) community service; 4) promoting entrepreneurship; and 5) advocacy. It’s mission is to strengthen the community and reduce recidivism by placing returning citizens into stable, well-paying hospitality jobs, working with employers and Academy partners.

The Academy will consist of a networked constellation of programs and activities, detailed below, anchored by physical presences both within the Jail and in Southeast DC. The core functions will be phased in over time, with training/education and job placement as a priority in the first two years. The others will be built out over the following five years.

Several partners will be central to the success of this enterprise: First and foremost, the DC DOC itself and the DC Government; the University of the District of Columbia, which has run a short hospitality course at the Jail; a corporate hotel partner such as Marriott, ideal due to its local headquarters; the DC Central Kitchen, which has an existing relationship with the DOC; the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW); the DC Convention Center; and multiple local sports franchises including the Redskins, Wizards, Mystics, Nationals, Capitals, and DC United. Each partner provides a necessary element of mentoring, employment, training, or education.

The Foundation: The Academy

At the center of this plan is the Academy itself, offering five main substantive specializations. Academy partners will devote their assistance efforts to supporting the area most relevant to their strength, notionally indicated below:
1) Food and Beverage (Partners: RAMW and DC Central Kitchen, FareStart)
2) Banqueting and Event Management (Partner: DC Convention Center)
3) Sports and Entertainment (Partners: local sports franchises)
4) Hotel and Guest Services (Partner: Marriott)
5) Technology and Hospitality Management (Partner: UDC)

The Academy will become a leading education and training provider for the industry in the Mid-Atlantic region, powered by motivated and well-trained returning citizens. It will build on existing training at the DC DOC like ServeSafe, UDC Guest Services courses, the existing DC Central Kitchen partnership for Culinary Arts training, and the Mayor’s Project Empowerment programs – integrating these several activities toward a singular purpose: graduates who are prepared for, and placed in, good jobs in the hospitality industry.

The functions of the Academy are further delineated below.

Core Function 1: Training and Education

Hospitality training will be provided both in the classroom and through hands-on learning, through the use of existing facilities at the DC Jail and in the community. The Jail has kitchen space for practical instruction and cells that could be outfitted as hotel rooms for training. Several partners will provide a series of structured training modules in the subject areas detailed above. These will be developed where necessary, and tailored to DOC participants, in close cooperation between the Academy and partner organizations. Partners like FareStart may have appropriate learning modules already available “off the shelf.” Upon release, inmates who require additional training beyond that provided in the Jail will be matched with program partners for hands-on paid apprenticeships, as appropriate, or participate in short training programs at Academy facilities in Southeast DC.

The HoTrEd DC Academy will be powered on the educational front by a close partnership with the UDC, offering returning citizens with high school equivalence (GED) certificates the ability to move on through continuing education programs to 2-year or 4-year degree programs in hospitality management. This education component would build on a partnership with the District government, and current GED offerings at the Jail. UDC could also partner with a local business school to offer a graduate-level (MA or MBA) program in Hospitality Management, at a later time. A GED certificate will be a prerequisite to participation in the Academy’s activities, though inmates currently enrolled in GED classes will be eligible.

Core Function 2: Employment and Job Placement

The Academy will be anchored by a robust employment and job placement office that matches returning citizens with good local jobs. Area employers will compete for well-trained Academy graduates who will never be asked to check a box about their criminal record, because their incarceration will be understood as a period when they took advantage of the opportunity to acquire the skills that made them sought-after employees.

The DC Government can assist Academy employment efforts by augmenting federal bonding and subsidy programs that incentivize business owners to hire returned citizens. Partner organizations will commit to becoming foundational employers for the Academy’s well-trained graduates, and will proselytize with other employers in the local business community regarding hiring. Partners will also commit to recruiting, hiring, and training returned citizens from lower income and minority communities around DC, extending current recruiting efforts beyond the usual college campus avenues.

Two innovative technology pilot projects will supercharge the Academy’s employment mission.

‘WaitUp’ – Just-In-Time Hospitality Staffing

The pilot ‘WaitUp’ program, powered by a proprietary software application, will facilitate just-in-time staffing for local banquets, functions, and busy food service establishments. A cadre of on-call vetted and Academy-trained staff will be available on short notice to augment staffing during rush periods or for events, especially during peak seasons in the spring and fall. Competent hospitality workers are often difficult to find on short notice in the DC area, and the Academy will address this need. A partnership with a ride-hailing service willing to subsidize this innovative project will facilitate the timely arrival of Academy graduates to job sites around the DC area.

‘ReturnToWork’ – Re-employment Search

The Academy will also partner with the tech sector (ideally, Monster or Indeed) to pilot in the DC region a ‘ReturnToWork’ job search function for returned citizens that builds on the well-defined skill areas of many inmates. Google has successfuly pioneered this idea for military veterans, matching Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) codes with available jobs. A similar well-publicized ‘ReturnToWork’ campaign in DC will match returnees with jobs in vocations they have experience doing: culinary, maintenance, laundry, and prison light industry enterprises like printing, cabinetry, and auto repair. A tailored employment website can greatly facilitate the success of local returnees through such a job placement partnership well beyond just the hospitality sector, becoming a national model if effective.

Core Function 3: Community Service

The Coronavirus pandemic has shown that the hospitality sector can play a leading role in supporting needy communities, taking care of those experiencing food insecurity. The partnerships built in 2020 to provide meals in disadvantaged neighborhoods can serve as a sustainable model and foundation for the Academy to continue to serve the DC community. The often-underutilized kitchen capacity at the Jail can provide inmates a important chance to get out of their cells and give back to the city, even while doing time. Through partnerships with local farmer’s markets (facilitated by the DC Central Kitchen), Academy trainees will use Jail facilities to prepare and package healthy meals for low-income families in the DC area. Meal preparation will be a critical component of hands-on training for Academy students specializing in food and beverage, and delivery will be a consistent source of employment and income for returned graduates. Meals will be delivered nightly or twice-weekly by returnees working for the DC Central Kitchen or other community partners. This also provides a tangible means for inmates and returnees to demonstrate their commitment to healing the community they may have injured through their crimes.

Core Function 4: Entrepreneurship

The Academy will serve as a small business incubator for inmate-owned and operated enterprises in the hospitality space, providing seed capital, expertise, mentorship, training, and support. Inmates are resourceful and creative thinkers, and the Academy will help develop and support well-considered business proposals. One initial area of focus for small business startups will be short-term rental cleaning and concierge services (ideally in partnership with AirB&B), given the low barriers to entry and sizable market for these services in the DC area. The Academy will provide coursework for inmates on developing effective business plans and turning ideas into action. It will also facilitate access to legal, accounting, and other support services for inmate-owned startups as necessary. Finally, the Academy will match hospitality entrepreneurs with mentors from the local DC business community.

Core Function 5: Advocacy

The Academy’s Southeast DC locale will serve as a center for public outreach and awareness-building on countering recidivism, hosting community events in line with the Academy’s mission, and advocating for more humane criminal justice policies. Over time, the goal will be to open, staff, and maintain a full-service restaurant, community food bank, and soup kitchen. Attached to this enterprise will be a commercial kitchen to facilitate entrepreneurship, training events, and the home meal delivery service described above. A healthy percentage of any profits will be reinvested in community-based re-entry programs.

III. THE HOW: Operational Considerations

While the programs and activities described above may seem ambitious and extensive, we expect to implement them in a phased manner that builds on initial success. The Academy itself – the training and education center with its five core substantive curricula – will necessarily be the initial focus, followed closely by the job placement service. The community service, entrepreneurship, and advocacy functions will be built over the longer term.

The Academy intends to form partnerships with innovative existing programs in the hospitality/anti-recidivism space – Edwin’s in Cleveland, Cafe Momentum in Dallas, and the Rikers Coffee Academy in New York, for example – to learn valuable lessons from these groundbreaking efforts and build on their success. Many other organizations and stakeholders have recognized the attraction of the hospitality industry as an outlet and opportunity for returning citizens, and we will adapt the best of those ideas to the DC community’s needs.

The Academy will seat a Board of Trustees to steer the direction of the organization over the long term. The Board will be composed of prominent local business and community leaders, and representatives of Partner organizations. The Executive Director of the Academy will report to the Board regularly as to progress on the Academy’s mission and goals.

The Academy will build on several existing initiatives already in place within the DC DOC. The culinary program run with the DC Central Kitchen, the Guest Services certificate program run with UDC, the Mayor’s Project Empowerment re-entry program – all offer useful existing activities for the Academy to build on. The CTF “D” building also offers existing commercial kitchen facilities with excess capacity. If the current jail facility is relocated, the Academy will work with DOC to identity facilities requirements that will keep the program viable over the long term.

The Academy will be physically headquartered inside the DC Jail’s Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), within the DOC’s re-entry program cellblock, to take advantage of existing administrative processes. To start, three to six Academy staff members will augment existing DOC personnel. We fully recognize the challenges of establishing and maintaining a program of this scope within a correctional environment, and understand the primacy of security requirements; we will work hand in hand with the DOC to ensure security needs are met.

The Academy will occupy one full D building cellblock to start (both A and B sides) with an adjoining kitchen facility in the center hallway. Between both halves of the cellblock, around 100 inmates will eventually take part. Inmates from the CDF (main jail) culinary program who are eligible will need to move regularly between the two buildings.

The Academy will raise and provide dedicated funds to meet any requisite additional security, facilities, and staffing costs the DOC feels are necessary to the Academy’s operation. DOC’s primary requirement will be providing the space and any necessary vetting required to select participants. The DOC Director or his/her designee will also have a prominent seat on the Board of Trustees and a significant role in the Academy’s direction, to ensure it meets DOC’s expectations as well as community needs.

The Academy will operate as a nonprofit entity, with spinoff ventures such as the WaitUp staffing app operating on a for-profit basis.

The Academy is currently seeking approximately $1.5M in startup funds from a mix of public and private sector sources and intends to commence initial operations in early 2023.

About the Author:
Daniel Rosen, 50, is a writer and justice reform advocate who is currently serving a five year sentence in Virginia, after completing a two year sentence in Washington, DC. He spent fifteen years in public service, working for the Departments of State and Defense on national security issues; prior to incarceration, he was the Director of Counterterrorism Programs at the State Department. Mr. Rosen holds a Master’s degree from Tufts University, and a B.A. with Honors from UCLA. He has been responsible for conceiving and building new programs and organizations within the federal government and nonprofit sectors. He has been recognized throughout his career for successful management of programs, people, and budgets to serve the public trust. He has also spent fifteen years in various hospitality industry jobs. Mr. Rosen will be released from prison in the fall of 2021 and plans to reside in Washington, D.C.