California jail trains inmates for a second chance as a barista: ‘They’ve done their time’

·4 min read
Paul Kitagaki Jr./

Jamie Mason was more than 20 years into her career in specialty coffee when she got a call from an alarming source: the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

The Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center was starting a coffee education and barista training program, a lieutenant told Mason, and they wanted her to lead it. She demurred at first, content to write curriculum and design the cafe’s layout, before taking the reins in November 2020.

Thus began Redemption Coffee, the Elk Grove jail’s internal cafe and training center for soon-to-be-released female inmates. Twenty-one women graduated since Mason took over, and alumnae have landed jobs as baristas and roasters at Camellia Coffee Roasters and Bewley’s, the parent company of Java City.

Redemption Coffee students first learn bean anatomy, tasting notes and coffee origins. They then dive into foundational barista knowledge such as milk science and pouring espresso shots, before learning latte art and how to pick out tasting notes.

The final sessions focus on cafe operations such as taking inventory and writing schedules. Working as a barista is many people’s foot-in-the-door to the coffee industry, but Redemption Coffee shows people how to do jobs away from the counter, many of which Mason said offer more of a living wage.

Mason teaches three to 12 women at a time, all of whom must have been in jail for at least three months, can’t be violent offenders and must sign up for other reentry services as well.

“Part of my job is to really think about not just measured outcomes ... but changing the cultural attitudes of ex-offenders,” Mason said. “They’ve done their time. I want these women to have a fair chance and opportunity to thrive in their lives. These women constantly surprise me with their drive to want to change.”

What I’m eating

Mack and Charlie Thomas opened MacQue’s BBQ as a catering operation in 1986, then opened their first restaurant in southeastern Sacramento in 1991. While that barbecue joint eventually shut down, another opened in 2019 in Elk Grove Village shopping center.

The Thomas family is all over MacQue’s, from dishes named “JoJo’s sliders” or “Ms. Jaye’s bread pudding” to framed photos lining the walls. It’s better to visit for lunch than dinner, as with many barbecue joints, since you’ll find more freshly-cooked meats and most items should still be in stock.

While MacQue’s has an expansive menu compared to other barbecue spots, tried-and-true classics such as pork ribs ($13.69 with two sides and a roll) are favorites for a reason. The fall-off-the bone pork benefited greatly from Macque’s sweet Kansas City-style barbecue sauce; pick medium spice for a subtle, slow burn.

A plate of chopped tri-tip ($14.39 with two sides and a roll) reminded me this was indeed California barbecue. Piquant and zesty thanks to MacQue’s house rub, its vibrant pink smoke ring flexed the pitmaster’s expert cookery.

Cam’s kettle chips ($4.75-$11.50 depending on toppings) were another housemade surprise, thick and crunchy amid a dusting of that dry rub. For dessert, a slice of sweet potato pie ($4.25) had plenty of flavor without being overly sweet.

MacQue’s BBQ

Address: 8517 Elk Grove Blvd., Elk Grove.

Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday.

Phone number: (916) 714-2910.


Drinks: Beer, wine, soda and The Lemon Mob’s flavored lemonades.

Animal-free options: Very few - it’s a barbecue joint, after all. Some sides are vegetarian.

Noise level: Medium to medium-loud.

Openings & Closings

  • Auburn-based Moonraker Brewing soft-opened its Cameron Park brewery and farm, Moonraker Millhouse, on Tuesday at 3501 Robin Lane. Seventeen-acre property includes a 20,000-square foot taproom and farm-to-table restaurant.

  • Elk Grove tequila and taco bar Pig Latin opened Monday at 9631 E. Stockton Blvd. Look for norm-bending dishes and drinks such as prawns al pastor and the Verde Vixen cocktail (a mezcal margarita with blended avocado, cilantro and kale).

  • Oliver’s Brewhouse & Grill closed last week after two years in business in downtown Lincoln. Matthew and Siobhan Oliver’s other restaurant and bar, House of Oliver, remains open in Roseville.

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