Acton Institute Powerblog

Fresh Food And Fresh Starts

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In today’s American, nearly a quarter million women are incarcerated, primarily for drug-related or non-violent crimes. That’s roughly an 800 percent increase in the past 30 years. And female felons don’t have any easier a time finding work than their male counterparts. Typically, about half of those released from prison have no stable home, no transportation … and few legal job skills. Many of these people struggle with addiction and/or mental health issues as well.

One woman, a social worker-turned-entrepreneur in North Carolina, has found a way to join her passion for fresh food with her passion for helping these women. Tanya Jisa now oversees Benevolence Farm,

nestled in pastoral lands west of Durham, N.C., which will serve as a transitional living program for just released female ex-convicts. For a period of six months to two years, these women will learn about how to operate the farm, growing their own food along with produce to be sold at farm stands, farmers markets, and local grocery stores.

Jisa had a desire to grow fresh food, but also connect poor with that food. As a social worker, she was troubled by the fact that 1 in 100 adults in the U.S. in either in jail or prison. By taking her love of farming and combining it with a program to benefit women recently released from prison, her hope is that she can help these women stay out of prison, while teaching the local community about the benefits of healthy eating.

The 13-acre farm will eventually be home to 12 women and employ a full-time farm manager. Jisa will oversee the business end, along with helping the women deal with the issues that may have led to their incarceration in the first place. One woman, Lisa, explains what the farm has done for her:

I was scared to come out of prison,” she says. “When you get back into society after being incarcerated you feel worthless.”

She had lost custody of her son. After returning from a 43-day stint in jail she was living in a shelter. But out on the farm, she says, she felt at ease, less prone to the anxiety and panic that had ruled her days.

“On the farm it’s just me, God, and the plants,” she says. “This will give me time to think, and maybe I can get my life back on track.”

In the current issue of Acton’s Religion & Liberty, Bert Smith, a businessman who runs the Houston-based Prison Entrepreneurship Program for men, discusses how prisons are run, and how they bank against the success of its parolees:

I’m not aware of any penal system that really incentivizes the operators based on the success or failure of the inmates that leave prison. We need to identify the metrics and correctly identify who gets rewarded. The system is geared toward punishment and lock up. We are not incentivizing rehabilitation and successful reentry. You get a guy out and he does well, but there is no reward for those who helped him succeed. I think that would be a radical change in the way we pay for and oversee the prison industry.

For now, we’ll need to rely on the talents of people like Smith and Jira to see the good in each person, and be willing to invest in that person’s future.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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