COCC puts on 'high tea' at prison
An unlikely group of bowtied men gathered last week to host several dozen visitors for a "high tea" — an afternoon tea party with homemade treats.
The men seated their guests around tables tastefully decorated with tiered trays featuring small sandwiches, scones and fruit, and poured tea from delicate teapots into equally delicate cups. The event was held Oct. 25, at Deer Ridge Correctional Institution, where all of the men are inmates in the minimum-security prison.
The high tea was the brainchild of Janet Narum, Central Oregon Community College education director for DRCI, who was looking for an unusual event to attract much needed volunteers for the prison.
"I would guess we're the only prison in the world with a high tea," said Narum. "One of the inmates said, 'This is so wonderful because it shows the humanity of the people who live here.'"
After coming up with the idea for the tea more than two months ago, she persuaded a friend, Pat Watson, of Madras, to help her put the event together.
Watson helped Narum plan the tea, and purchase the materials — plastic champagne flutes and trays, and paper doilies — to make the tiered trays that adorned the tables, and then show inmates how to put the centerpieces together.
She also came up with 14 China teapots — one for each table — as well as 56 cups and saucers, and fresh roses for each table.
"They were so appreciative," said Watson, who referred to the inmates as "the boys." "When I brought the flowers in, one of them looked at me and said, 'This is the best smell I've smelled in a long time.'"
"That was one of the most rewarding things I've done in my life," said Watson. "In my heart, I feel that none of those boys will be back."
The program for the event included music by the inmate band, "Model Citizens," opening remarks by DRCI Superintendent Tim Causey, introductions by Narum, several talks by inmates, food service and a skit.
Causey said that the minimum-security's approach is to "help these folks assimilate back into society."
The prison currently houses about 930 minimum-security inmates on the side of the prison that was originally built to house about 1,228 medium-security inmates. In February 2016, DRCI shifted the 774 inmates from the smaller minimum-security side of the prison to the medium-security side, which has been modified to have a capacity of 987 beds.
Barring any change in status, the 930 or so minimum-security inmates will all be released sometime within the next four years, and prison officials and educators are always considering programs that will help them make the transition from inmate to regular citizen.
One of key programs to assist inmates is the GED program, according to Causey. Per capita, he said, DRCI probably puts out the most GED certificates in the state.
"We're constantly looking at how can we do more?" he said, noting that some of the inmates will be going back to Jefferson, Crook and Deschutes counties. "How, when they leave here, are they going to be contributing members of society?"
To assist with prison programs, DRCI is looking for volunteers to be reading partners for students a few hours per month; classroom monitors for special speakers or activities; and program facilitators in construction, crafts, art, history, writing and science.
"The things we offer are based on our staffing levels," said Causey. "You have to have somebody there to provide guidance and direction. We can give them job skills, but the piece that needs to be connected is what do they do in their spare time? We need to help them identify and cultivate hobbies to be contributing members of society."
The tea showcased inmates' musical, speaking, and even theatrical skills.
Aaron Miller, an inmate who participated in both the music and the skit, told the visitors, "The simple fact that you're here let's us know that society hasn't given up on us. We thank you."
Contacted the next day, Narum said that the event "went really well; it was beyond our expectations. The guys today were floating around on a cloud. They really enjoyed it."
"I thought it was lovely," said Coralee Popp, director of Art Adventure Gallery, who has previously volunteered in art classes at the prison. "I love having my preconceptions blown away."
Before the inmates moved from the minimum-security side of the prison to the larger medium-security side in 2016, the gallery ran a series of art classes at the prison, taught by artist Jim Smith.
"I went out and assisted with classes and juried the show; there was some amazing talent there," said Popp, who is interested in getting those classes started once again, or just volunteering for other activities.
"It's a win-win," she said. "They get the affirmation that people on the outside want them to succeed, and we get the opportunity to be reminded that we're more alike than different in this world. We all make mistakes; this kind of thing helps them not make them again."