John Brown, a minimum-security inmate at SCRI, sang ‘Silent Night’ and other Christmas songs as part of the choir for the event. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon)

ONTARIO — Gravy churned in a large vat. Steam plumed out. A persistent clatter sounded throughout the kitchen as ladies banged plastic trays.

In the minimum security unit of Snake River Correctional Institution, inmates at the sprawling kitchen sliced meat, prepared side dishes, arranged the pies.

They were preparing a holiday feast for their special guests.

Last week, more than 100 senior citizens from Ontario, Vale, Nyssa and Adrian were bused to the prison to share a warm meal cooked and served up by prisoners.

It’s the 11th year the prison has hosted the holiday luncheon. And every year, it’s a huge effort put on by the inmates to make sure seniors in the community get a hot pre-Christmas meal. 

Brad Cain, prison superintendent said the event started out as a way for inmates to reach out to the community.

“Many feel it’s a positive thing to do,” said Cain. “We are pro social here. They love talking to their senior guests.”

He added that hosting such events helps inmates prepare for their freedom.

“We want to have close connections to the community,” Cain said.

He said the prison also works with community organizations such as the Malheur Council on Aging, a nonprofit that helps senior citizens.

Melissa Matthews, who spoke at the event on behalf of the council, said the Snake River inmates also prepare all the food delivered through the year by Meals on Wheels. She said the inmates prepared 15,361 meals during the 2017-18 fiscal year.

“All the seniors really enjoy the meals that the inmates provide,” said Matthews. “They always give us positive feedback. They said they’ve very nutritious and tasty.”

Sherian Chard of Vale said she and her friends at the Vale Senior Citizens Center love the food they get from Meals on Wheels. 

She said the prison delivers meals to the senior center on Mondays and Wednesdays, which she looks forward to each week. 

She said the meals are tasty and healthy.

Vicki Brown, SRCI assistant food service manager and the lead coordinator of the holiday luncheon, said the inmates cook about 9,000 meals a day to feed the prison’s 3,000 inmates. They also cater for local community events, such as graduations at the Treasure Valley Community College, Project DOVE meetings and events at the Boys and Girls Club.

“Inmates look forward to these events,” said Brown. “They sign up to help.”

She said that all the dishes and desserts are prepared from scratch. The inmates also get a chance to create menus and choose dishes for meals served at the staff kitchen.

“Food service is an arena they can get a job in when they get released,” said Brown. “Any opportunity to socialize and interact with the community helps them.”

Several inmates who volunteered at the holiday senior luncheon agreed. They say they looked forward to having guests to serve and entertain.

“I just like the feeling of giving back,” said John Brown, an inmate serving time for assault. “For us, it means a lot for people to come. We need this kind of positive attitude to be a part of our time here.”

Inmate Victor Mercado, who had a chance to volunteer at the event last year, said he was happy to be a part of the luncheon again.

“I like to see the seniors come and for us to lighten up their spirits,” said Mercado. “I like to give back to the community and do something good for them.”

Both Mercado and Brown were part of the choir that sang holiday carols during the event. They said they had to audition for the choir. 

“We try to keep the spirits up and stay positive as much as possible,” said Mercado. “We support each other.”

Inmate Ramon Moreno said this was his first time cooking for the senior lunch. A lead trainer cook at the prison, he said his crew prepared turkey, green beans, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy for the special event. 

“Today went nice. It was a little fast and we were rushing in the kitchen, but it all worked out well,” he said. “I didn’t cook before coming here. Learning new things and doing stuff like this makes us feel better.”

Joe Green, an inmate who volunteered as a server, said he hopes the seniors enjoyed the food and their hospitality. 

“I hope we helped them as much as they have helped us,” said Green. “I had a lot of fun. It made me realize that, no matter the situation or how bad it could be, we just need to make the best of it.”

John McIntyre, a senior from Ontario, said he has been coming out to the prison for the holiday luncheon event for 10 years. He said his wife of 55 years would come out, too, but she died recently.

“My wife and I really like that the prison lets these guys do something like this,” said McIntyre. “It gives these guys a chance to get back to real life. I think it’s a good community experience for the guys.”

Malheur County Commissioner Don Hodge is another regular. He has been attending the holiday senior luncheon for the last five years. He said he tries to come out every year to support for the inmates who volunteer on community projects.

“The inmates are great community partners. People don’t volunteer like they used to,” said Hodge. “We just don’t get much volunteerism these days, so this is nice.”

Once guests were finished with the main course, inmates served coffee and slices of pumpkin pie with whipped cream and treated their guests with a choir concert.

A choir composed of staff members and inmates went to the front of the room to sing holiday carols. 

“I loved it. It’s such a good feeling to give back,” said George Cantu, an inmate who sang with the choir. “It felt so good to get up there and sing.”

David Bonner, an inmate watched his friends perform, said being a part of the event and watching other inmates sing made him feel “very emotional.”

“It’s hard for me to hold back my emotions in events like this,” said Bonner. “This is my 20th year in prison, so it’s really nice to be able to interact with others from the community. Events like this makes us feel human again.”

Bonner said this his third and last time helping out at the holiday luncheon. He said this year’s luncheon was special and inspiring, as he is scheduled to be released next year.

“It’s an awesome gig. I would come here when I’m free,” he said. “It’s gonna be really stressful once I get out of here. It’s very stressful to support oneself after spending time in prison.”

Bonner said he often tries to sign up for volunteer events because it’s one way for him to get ready for the day he gets out.

“The only person who can rehabilitate you is yourself,” he said. “I want to work my butt off when I get out. I’m never gonna do anything that will get me back in here again.”

Reporter Kristine de Leon: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.