Tanya Jisa, a trained social worker who now heads Benevolence Farm in Alamance County, has always had a heart for people entangled in the justice system.
“When I read in The New York Times [in 2007] that 1 in 100 people in [the U.S.] sit in prison, I thought, ‘This is crazy. We’re going in the wrong direction,’ ” Jisa said.
That’s when the idea struck to combine her desire to help women break the cycle of incarceration with her love of farming.
“It’s a chance for them to get their hands in the dirt and heal,” Jisa said.
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The 13-acre farm in Alamance County is set to open next spring, initially receiving five women released from state prison. When fully developed, the farm will house and employ up to 12 women. Currently, medicinal herb and vegetable gardens and mushroom logs dot the property that is gradually being cleared. In the spring, Jisa says beehives and blueberry bushes will arrive. Eventually, the property will have an orchard with fruit and nut trees and expanded vegetable production to sell to local farmers markets.
The program will be open to women who have been in prison for more than three years and have taken advantage of prison programs that build work skills, support alcohol and drug rehabilitation, and more. The farm will provide stable housing and employment: two barriers that often lead women right back to prison, Jisa said.
“Women return to prison because they incur charges that are basically ‘survival charges’ – shoplifting, stealing, writing bad checks to generate income for themselves,” Jisa said. When they’re released into the same surroundings and situations that led them to prison in the first place, it’s hard to create new patterns.
For Nancy W., a small business owner who declined to give her last name, a criminal record slammed doors to housing and employment. Without those, she twice fell back into criminal activity.
“I could leave [my ex-husband] but I couldn’t stay away,” Nancy said. “My car would break down and I would have to call him and that would start the cycle all over again.”
Nancy applied for 60 jobs after being released from prison for the last time in 2002. Fifty-nine employers said no because of her criminal record. She finally got a minimum wage job.
She wonders how many people would just give up after fewer rejections than she endured.
“There are places that will hire and there is hope. [Benevolence Farm] is about getting the girls to the point where they feel supported enough that they’re not going to give up,” Nancy said. She has been volunteering with the program committee to help them tailor programs to the needs of women coming out of prison.
From the beginning, Jisa said, the group has relied on formerly incarcerated women to guide their decisions.
“They know a lot more than we do about what they need,” she said.
One woman shared that what she missed most while in prison was being able to look up at the night sky. So when N.C. State College of Design students designed a barn for the farm, they incorporated a skylight. The 985-square-foot barn, valued at $100,000, provides workspace and storage for residents to prepare harvests for market.
The farm will have a small staff comprised of a farm manager, house manager and an on-call person for emergencies. The group has partnered with others in the community to provide financial literacy training, job readiness, education, and social and legal services.
“These women have served out their sentences and … we’re going to provide them as much support and freedom as we can so they can be as independent as they feel ready to be,” Jisa said.
Contact: Abby Goodman, email@example.com
Description: Stable housing and gainful employment are critical for the successful transition of women returning from prison. Benevolence Farm will fulfill this crucial need in North Carolina through an innovative social enterprise-based transitional living program. Our mission is to provide an opportunity for women leaving prison to live and work on a farm where they grow food, nourish self and foster community.
Donations needed: Donations to Benevolence Farm will support programming and individual needs (clothing, hygiene, education supplies, etc.) of women in transition upon release from prison.
Items needed: Farming/gardening tools, gift cards (for groceries, gas, personal care items, clothing, home improvement items), commercial-grade cookware and bakeware, canning and preserving supplies.
Volunteers needed: Farm workdays, assisting with special events, marketing and public relations support, grant writing.
$10 would buy: Five seedling plug trays, 1 bag of organic soil mix, 1 pair of gardening gloves.
$20 would buy: Field knife, transplant trowel, one-month supply of ink and printer paper.
$50 would buy: Interview attire for a resident, 15 half-bushel wax boxes for residents to pack their harvest for market, stirrup hoe, wheelbarrow.