Piled high to the left of a newly constructed greenhouse sit stacks of bored timber. Each newly sawed trunk is spotted with holes, freshly sealed with yellow wax. Curled inside the holes are mushroom spores, oyster and shiitake, that will sprout in six to 12 months, ready to sell at farmers markets around North Carolina.
It is the first crop for 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.
Benevolence Farm is the dream of social worker Tanya Jisa, who for the better part of a decade has been toiling to bring it to fruition. In 2006 she had moved to Carrboro, N.C., with her partner to join a cooperative housing community and be connected to the local farm and food community that is so popular in this area near Duke University in Durham. Every weekend farmers gather at many local markets to sell produce from their farms.
Ms. Jisa, who at the time was working at Duke’s medical center, loved fresh food, but was troubled that only some people had access to this food – or the opportunity to work the land.
“I thought, how could I do social work and connect it with food and farming?” she says. A few months later she read a newspaper article that featured a chilling statistic about the rise in prison populations: 1 in 100 adults in the United States is in prison or jail.
“That just hit me,” she says. “I knew that this was the issue I wanted to focus on,” a way to combine working the land and growing fresh food with giving people leaving prison a fresh start.
Jisa decided to narrow her focus exclusively to helping female inmates returning from prison. Plenty of women were in need of help: In the past three decades the number of female prisoners in the US has grown by 800 percent. Roughly 200,000 women are in prison or jail, most of them for nonviolent or drug-related crimes. Many have had to leave their children behind to be cared for by relatives.
The lives of those just released from prison are challenging. In North Carolina last year 2,784 women returned from prison and more than 16,000 are under some form of community correction, including alternative programs to incarceration. But programs to help them reenter society and address their many needs are few. Almost half the women don’t have a stable place to live, few have job skills, and many are dealing with addiction or mental health issues.