From Inmate to Bartender: South Africa’s Pioneering Program
Beyond Bars Akademia just enrolled its second class of former female inmates who will receive an education in hospitality and a chance to restart their lives.
Stephanie Simbo was just 10 years old when her brother, Evelson Joseph (known by friends and family as Ben), was sent to jail. The siblings grew up in Villiers-sur-Marne, a suburb of Paris, France, in what Simbo refers to as “the ghetto.” A rugby player and scholarship student, Simbo says he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time—while riding in a car with friends, they were pulled over by the police, who found weapons in the vehicle. His friends ran, but her brother couldn’t get away in time. He was arrested instead.
Ben thought speaking up for himself and giving up the names of the people he was with would have had a worse outcome than just serving his time (“snitches get stitches,” says Simbo). But neither Simbo nor her brother anticipated how difficult his coming back home would be.
A year after his release, Ben struggled to find a job and rebuild his life, which took a dangerous toll on his mental health. There was no one in his community outside of his family that he could turn to for support.
“He became a pariah. We had a really long discussion where he explained to me that [going to] prison is like having a stain on your face that won’t go away,” says Simbo, recalling the conversation, which they had after he attempted suicide. “I made him a promise that night. I said, ‘Look. I will always see the human being behind the stain. I will always see the human being behind the criminal record.’”
In the following years, her brother’s experiences helped shape Simbo’s own path. She dedicated her life and education to upholding the promise she made to her brother, going to law school, getting her MBA and then spending years working her way up in the hospitality industry. Her goal was to find a way to help those released from prison better manage reintegration to society. To Simbo, whose mother also worked as a chef, bars and restaurants seemed like a natural fit.
Simbo says the industry “is accepting of everyone. No matter where you’re from, no matter what language you speak.” Being successful also doesn’t require years of schooling or a diploma—a willingness to work hard is often what it takes to get an entry level position.
Before she could help others find their way, however, it was important to her to understand the industry she’d chosen.
“I went to London, I started cleaning toilets, and I climbed my way up to being a manager,” says Simbo. “I wanted to learn all the steps, and once I became a manager, I was like, cool. I made that promise [to my brother] 20 years ago. I’m ready.”
That’s when, in 2017, she founded Beyond Bars Akademia in Cape Town, South Africa—a city she found herself drawn to after vacationing there a few years prior.
Beyond Bars Akademia is a nonprofit organization with the explicit purpose of helping former female inmates transition from a life behind bars to a life behind the stick. The program welcomed its first class in 2018. Set up similarly to a boarding school, the six-month course of study is designed to give students the tools and resources to manage their own stress, money and time, while also preparing them for a career in the hospitality industry. This not only means teaching them how to make a perfect cocktail, but also facilitating job placements at local partner establishments once the program ends. “We need to offer mental health support, we need to offer a housing solution, we need to offer life skills and social skills to those people,” says Simbo. Seven of Simbo’s 10 initial students currently work at establishments throughout South Africa.
Unfortunately, Ben, who helped inspire and conceptualize the school, didn’t get to meet its first class of students or witness their success. He died from colon cancer two months before Beyond Bars Akademia opened. Now, Simbo says, the school serves as a tribute to him.
With a zero-percent rate of recidivism among its alumni thus far, and a new round of funding that includes a $27,500 grant from the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, Beyond Bars Akademia began its semester with 10 new students in October. (So far, Simbo is incredibly impressed with the current class: “I think they will bring me a 100-percent success rate—they are amazing.”) She will soon expand each class, and welcome an additional 20 more women in the spring.
“Last year, we had 10 women just because we didn’t have a lot of funding,” says Simbo. “Honestly, most of the funding was coming from my own pocket [from what] I saved for 20 years. It’s because we received money from Tales of the Cocktail that we are able to have a new campus, new uniforms, new materials and everything.”
She adds that the Tales Foundation grant also helped secure other donations, including one from the Rotary Le Cap des Tempêtes in Cape Town, South Africa, who offered to donate 50 cents for every dollar raised.
This was the second year Simbo applied for a grant, says Caroline Rosen, executive director of Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC). Rosen says that the TOTC grants committee was enthusiastic about Simbo’s organization from the beginning and, instead of awarding her a smaller grant the first year, decided to work with Simbo to help her develop a stronger proposal.
“She is a true visionary and she’s really building something that’s sustainable,” says Rosen. Simbo “is not looking at just this year or next year—she’s looking at the impact it can have in five, 10, 15 or 20 years. I think it’s a model that is so smart.”
Rosen adds that the Foundation grant isn’t just a one-and-done deal. Simbo, who also sits on one of the TOTC Foundation’s education committees, can apply for different types of grants through TOTC in the future, as well as receive support when needed.
“We have quarterly updates from [grant recipients], so we’re able to constantly to be here if there’s any advice needed,” says Rosen. “That’s really how we continue those conversations and each of the members on our grants committee make themselves open for questions throughout the year.”
Thanks to the 2019 TOTC grant, Simbo was able to hire two teachers, a fundraising manager, a psychologist and a social worker who will work with current students and maintain relationships with former students. She’s also made quite a few changes to the recruitment process and curriculum.
“Last year, we learned that the recruitment is a kind of pivotal moment, and we needed to make sure it was well-structured,” says Simbo, adding that they previously worked with an NGO for this part of the process. “We decided to deal directly with the Department of Correctional Services, so that would be easier to select the candidates.”
“Stephanie seems to be very passionate about the programs aimed at uplifting and developing the needy ex-offenders and those who are on parole,” says Ntobeko D. Ngalo, head of Mitchels Plain Community Corrections, where the school’s students come from. Beyond Bars Akademia “responds directly to our mandate of successful reintegration of [former] prisoners back into society.”
There’s no single profile for the women who enter the program. Some have been in prison for more than a decade, others only a few months. The same goes for their crimes.
“Most of the women in South Africa are in prisons for two kinds of crime—economical crimes and murder,” says Simbo. “Economical crime is like fraud or they steal food for the kids. Some of them are in prison for murder because there is no law that protects people that suffer from domestic abuse here in South Africa. Even if you kill your rapist, if you kill the person that assaulted you, you take 10 to 15 years for murder.”
Ngalo adds that the vetting process of external programs like BBA occurs at the Department of Correctional Services head office. They first started working with Simbo a few years ago.
During the month-long recruitment process, a candidate goes through drug tests, family visits, a psychometric test, and a core psychological evaluation. Once they have the green light, candidates move into the school for the duration of the program.
BBA is then divided into three phases, the first of which is a month-long introductory period, during which the women can decompress, focus on their mental health, and practice yoga and meditation.
“For a month, we don’t really teach them a lot of hospitality, because some of these women have been in prison for just six months, but some of them have been in prison for 10 years,” says Simbo. “So you kind of have to deprogram whatever happened in the prison, and help them get back into life in the most comfortable and secure way possible.”
Then begins a four-month intensive period where candidates focus on various aspects of hospitality, like bartending, visits to wineries and other industry locations, and management skills. Topics like mathematics (including learning how to budget), art therapy, dance and language work are incorporated into this round of classes as well.
“At first [my brother and I] just wanted a bar program, because we both just wanted to open a bar,” says Simbo. “But then I said to him, ‘Look. If we just teach them about making a good Manhattan, they might do a good Manhattan, but you go to cocktail bars not just for the drink, you go to places where you feel good, where people make you feel good.’ So we decided to focus our course on the human aspect of it and make sure that we empowered them, so they can create amazing experiences on top of making amazing drinks.”
This experimental, cross-disciplinary approach at Beyond Bars Akademia contributes to Simbo’s vision of holistic rehabilitation and reintegration in a country where studies have found the recidivism rate to be upwards of 90 percent within three years following release due to a lack of rehabilitation in correctional institutions.
“There are studies that show that a lot of prisoners upon release have a spike of anxiety, because they’ve been in prison for so long that being released scares them—because sometimes it’s actually worse outside for them,” says Simbo. “That’s also why you have so many of them sabotage their exit date.”
Simbo spent 10 years working in the hospitality industry herself. During that period she spent her free time researching and visiting prisons in an attempt to understand what resources are needed most following release. There’s also the question of addressing the significant rate of stigmatization and marginalization of the formerly incarcerated in South Africa, not unlike what Simbo’s brother experienced.
“It was important for us to understand how we could create a program with so many different individuals, but still have the highest rate of success,” she says. “Yes, hospitality is great, because it doesn’t necessarily require a diploma, but they don’t need only hospitality. We need to give them critical thinking, so they can make good decisions. We need to teach them about time management and financial literacy.”
For the final phase of the program, Simbo relies on the help of the local hospitality community who partner with Beyond Bars Akademia to offer internships and, if all goes well, employment and a steady paycheck at the close of the program.
“I would say most of the time, once they’re placed in internship, it works really well, and people tend to offer them job afterward,” says Simbo. This year’s local bar partners are Cause Effect Cocktail Kitchen and Orphanage Cocktail Emporium, and coworking space Ideas Cartel, which also features bars and restaurants.
The internship program includes the understanding that interns trained by Beyond Bars won’t be relegated to working behind the scenes because they have been incarcerated or because of the color of their skin. Fail to honor these rules and the relationship ends. But, Simbo says, so far, so good.
“We’re trying to make [bars and restaurants] understand that representation matters—diversity and inclusion will make your profit jump, because I tend to go to places that have people that look like me,” says Simbo. “But we’re fighting with that segregation in the hospitality industry where people of color are mostly hired in the kitchen or in the back or as a cleaning lady, rather than in front of house.”
She’s also committed to making sure that the education her students receive makes them competitive in the industry, working with the international organization Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) to eventually offer them a certificate.
“We’ve been working with WSET to become Approved Programme Providers—they’ve been amazing supporters,” says Simbo. “I’m hoping to become the first school in South Africa to be able to provide a level three in spirits.”
Simbo eventually plans to hire a program manager and director of education, which will allow her to step down as CEO of Beyond Bars to focus on being an ambassador for the program and so she can work on related projects, including opening an aligned hotel—“book a room to transform someone’s life.”
But for now she strives to maintain her forward-thinking school that allows students to thrive in their newfound freedom and show the community that, with proper support, the stain of a criminal record isn’t permanent.
“Every year, I want the curriculum to change, because every year it’s different, and I want us to be at the top of the trends, all the time,” says Simbo. “Always be two steps ahead, because people with a criminal record have a bad rap, and the best way to counteract that bad rap is to make sure that we train the best of the best.”