Nikos Alexis loads fresh dough into a oven at the...

Nikos Alexis loads fresh dough into a oven at the Rikers Island jail bakery. (March 16, 2011) Credit: AP

Each morning, and again in the afternoon, the blades of three bread-slicing machines are counted carefully.

Only then does the bakery let workers go home -- to their jail cells on Rikers Island.

Twenty inmates of one of the nation's largest jail complexes are part of a team that bakes 36,000 loaves of bread a week to feed the city's entire population held behind bars -- about 13,000 people. Employees in orange-and-white-striped jumpsuits and surgical caps earn $31 a week churning out whole wheat bread. The prison bakers say they are learning skills that may keep them gainfully employed once they get out.

"I'm learning teamwork," says prisoner Nikos Alexis, 24, his black leather boots caked with flour. He's serving a four-month sentence for possession of a forged instrument, according to correction records.

It's a privilege to get this work assignment; only inmates already sentenced to one year or less in jail are considered. Most of the other Rikers residents are awaiting trial on various charges -- including murder.

The bakers behind bars get up before dawn and climb into a van for the ride to the other side of the 413-acre island in the East River between Queens and the Bronx.

Passing a double row of razor wire-topped fences, they enter the mammoth, single-story bakery around 6 a.m., guarded by correction officers including a captain and a deputy warden.

More than culinary discipline is needed in this kitchen -- where tension between inmates or with guards can erupt in a flash, resulting in stabbings and slashings. So far, the bakery itself remains violence-free.

Still, it's a dynamic, noisy place. Dangers include fast-moving industrial machinery tagged with hands-off warning signs and blinking yellow lights.

The prison baking process starts in giant metal tubs where 1,600 pounds of dough is mixed for each batch -- giving new meaning to the term, "in stir" -- half white flour and half dark, and hoisted by a lift into a machine that divides it into balls that are shaped and fed into corn-oiled pans. The finished bread is stored in a walk-in refrigerator.

The soothing smell of warm, freshly baked bread drifts across the 11,000-square-foot space, a labyrinth of white-coated metal machines mixing, shaping, baking, slicing and packing the loaves.

The men take turns at various stations, from mixing the flour in the tubs to working the ovens.

The brows of three young men drip with sweat as they gently load 240 risen loaves into a giant oven -- a sea of dough that emerges golden a half-hour later.

At about 1 p.m., the day's baking is done. Then come the cleanup and maintenance of equipment, most of it dating to the 1960s.

"It's old, and any minute, something could go wrong," says chief mechanic Andrew Sonni, a civilian who keeps dog-eared repair logs in his tiny office off the bakery floor.

Tacked to a wall next to a pinup girl is a booklet with a two-word reminder: "COUNT BLADES." Keeping track of the blades in the slicing machines is a security measure to keep inmates from spiriting away any object "that might be turned into a handmade weapon," says Stephen Morello, a Department of Correction spokesman.

But the incarcerated bakers appear more interested in good behavior that could get them sprung early than in harming each other.

Latest video