By Alison Smith
Mildred Council, better known as Mama Dip, has been practicing redemption for longer than she can remember. For more than thirty years, Council has hired employees from the prison work release program at Orange County Correctional Center for her award-winning Southern restaurant, Mama Dip’s. She has recently expanded the program to include workers from the Durham Correctional Facility as well.
For many of the employees in the program, their job at Mama Dip’s is the first paid job they’ve ever held.
“My past was street life, so this is the first time I’m doing something positive,” said Paul, one of the employees in the program who has been in the Durham Correctional center for six years and will be released in another year and a half.
A position at Mama Dip’s gives the inmates the opportunity to save money and send money to their families. They are also able to better prepare for their transition into society.
“I know one day I’ll be leaving that [correctional] center and I won’t be going back,” Paul said. “Here, I get to come and put myself back into society, around people who aren’t being incarcerated, and, you know, mingle.”
Many business owners are reluctant to hire anyone who has a felon on their record, or a stint in prison as part of their resume. In light of the recession and high unemployment rates, getting a job is even more difficult.
“I think people are kind of scared to take a chance. Mama Dip is good at that… she was good at giving us a chance,” Paul said.
A first job on their resume increases the program particpants’ chances of finding other employment opportunities and becoming a contributing member of society. Without the first employment opportunity, the transition out of incarceration can be overwhelming.
“You have so many people who are in prison, who get out and have no outlet,” Paul said. That’s dangerous for society because you’re putting us back out with nothing.”
At Mama Dip’s, the inmates start out washing dishes or cleaning. Over time they learn skills such as potato-peeling and other miscellaneous kitchen jobs. They have responsibility, and learn that people like Council will trust them despite their past actions.
While working at Mama Dip’s, the inmates are treated as people rather than as inmates.
“When you get in there with everybody else, you’re talking about the same thing: your work. And you’re learning,” Council said. “You don’t have anything to be criticized for.”
Council comes from a background of poverty and hard work, so she understands the difficulty of the situation facing the inmates.
“I’m not criticizing their statures or where they come from, because my family comes from the same area,” Council said.
In 1957, long before she was known around town as Mama Dip, Council founded her restaurant with just $64. A dozen eggs and a pound of bacon were the foundation that grew into a lifetime of success. Drawing from her experience, Council believes that the most important quality in any employee is motivation.
“At that time I was making a little money, but I never thought I’d own a restaurant,” Council said. “It’s a lot of fear, and thinking ‘Can I do it?’ But you can do it. Once you learn how to read and follow directions, you can put something together.”
At Mama Dip’s, the atmosphere is truly that of a family restaurant. Council’s children and grandchildren work at the restaurant and treat other employees as part of the family. For their part, the inmates are glad to be accepted as part of the family that is Mama Dip’s restaurant.
“Some people need a chance to start again but can’t make amends,” Paul said. “I’m grateful to have a job.”