BROOKSVILLE — It's just before 10 a.m. and the kitchen floor at the Hernando County Detention Center is already coated in green bean juice.
Cooks work shoulder-to-shoulder to prepare lunch for the jail. Two inmates strain a vat of green beans into a drain on the floor. Another pair pour enough grits for 500 people into individual pans. Others stack trays and plastic foam containers, preparing for the impending lunch-service assembly line.
"Ten minutes!" a deputy yells.
The inmates and deputies have long run this operation like any other commercial kitchen. They learn how to cook, clean and work in teams.
But now, food preparation at the jail has a tangible benefit: Inmates can become certified through the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association's SafeStaff Foodhandler Certificate Program.
Since the jail started offering the program in March, 16 inmates have received certification, said Sgt. Jim Johnston, who oversees the jail's food services.
Michael Ciesielski is one of the certified inmates. He just took the test Tuesday.
"People say jail is a revolving door, but here we're being proactive," Ciesielski, 30, said in the kitchen Wednesday morning. "It might give us a better chance to secure employment."
Ciesielski turned back to the lunch assembly line, made up of about a dozen inmates.
On one end of this line, an inmate continually refreshed the stock of trays, which were passed on to servers who scooped up grits, green beans, ham, bread and juice — a menu covering every food group. Men on the other end placed the filled trays onto carts, which were pushed out for delivery; at this jail, inmates eat in their pods rather than a central cafeteria.
Most kitchen workers can move more freely around the jail because their crimes are typically misdemeanors and their sentences short.
And working in the kitchen can make a sentence even shorter. For every 80 hours worked at the jail, inmates get three days knocked off their sentences.
Scott Smith, one of the oldest kitchen staffers at 52, and Joe Klinnert, one of the youngest at 23, said they'll work up to 16 or 17 hours to get time off their sentences. Smith hopes to get out in time for his granddaughter's first birthday on Oct. 18. Klinnert wants to shorten his almost yearlong sentence to get home to his 3-year-old and 5-month-old children.
During their lunch break, the two men sat at a table in the back of the kitchen with a few other inmates, talking about their favorite foods.
"Most people like chicken (patties), but I like the peanut butter and jelly," said Smith, who's worked in food service for most of his life. "Mechanically separated chicken. Google it. It's gross."
Like Smith and most of the other inmates in the kitchen, the deputies who oversee their work came from food service backgrounds.
Deputy Steven Celt, who used to own a deli when he lived in New York, said he sees the kitchen training and certification program as a confidence booster for the inmates. For example, he said Ciesielski used to be shy when he first started working in the kitchen. Now, he helps manage the day-to-day operations.
"With that kind of leadership," he said, "that's a man I would hire."
Contact Kathryn Varn at (352) 754-6114 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kathrynvarn.