The Inmate (pp. 179-181)

“There isn’t a person around who feels a damn thing for a third generation gang member,” says Mimi Silbert. “Nobody happens to like them. But I happen to love them.”

Mimi is barely five feet tall, yet has the presence of a man twice her size. When she enters a room, everyone knows it. Though she is well into her seventies, she could pass for twenty years younger. Her eyes are bright blue, like semiprecious aquamarine; and they move quickly, missing nothing. Her thick brown mane of hair hangs loosely around her shoulders. She has never bothered to style it or cut it short the way another women her age might have. Those types of personal details don’t interest her.

On the table in front of her is a lunch of hash browns, eggs, hollandaise sauce and Velveeta cheese. At her feet lies Maple the dog, a fluffy brown bundle of fur that looks more like a teddy bear than a canine. She watches as a young man in a shirt and tie approaches with a plate of vegetables.

“Put it here, Romero,” says Mimi gesturing to a spot near the corner of the room.

Romero chuckles as he bends his massive six-foot frame to set the dog’s lunch carefully on the tile floor.

The smell of sautéed vegetables and baked apple-cinnamon wafts into the private dining room while the bustling lunchtime crowd gains momentum in the main space outside. Today’s specials at the Delancey Street Restaurant include roasted garlic chicken and crab cakes served with rice and mango papaya salsa. The menu combines old recipes from Mimi’s childhood in an immigrant neighborhood outside Boston, with recent concoctions created by Delancey Street residents.

There are about four hundred people living in the larger complex adjoining this restaurant on San Francisco’s busy waterfront. Ninety percent are men. They are a cross section of society: white, black, Latino, tall, short, fat, thin. But they differ from their fellow citizens in one important regard. Most have come after serving multiple prison terms for violent crimes. The average number of felony convictions per resident is eighteen. A few are here after hitting rock bottom as junkies, living on the street and selling anything they can for money to buy drugs.

In spite of the profile of its inhabitants, however, Delancey Street does not employ a single guard or social worker, warden or counselor to keep things in line. The place is run entirely by its residents. There is only one among them who is neither drug addict nor criminal, and that is the tiny septuagenarian putting Velveeta on her hash browns.

Mimi calls Delancey Street a Residential Learning Community. Others who know about its success call it a world-class solution to criminal rehabilitation. The statistics bear this out: 85-90% of those who make it through here never return to prison. Rather, they go on to lead meaningful lives as contributing members of society. As the recidivism rate in the U.S today is 70-80%, the success of this place is something many have tried to understand.