In recent decades, the number of women incarcerated in North Carolina has skyrocketed. In 2017, the state’s female prison population totaled 2,634, almost six times its 1978 number.
In the early aughts, programming for women reentering society lagged behind growing incarceration rates, said Benevolence Farm Executive Director Kristen Powers in a phone interview.
In 2008, social worker and Benevolence Farm founder Tanya Jisa put together a team to try to address the needs of women exiting the prison system in North Carolina. From this effort came forth the idea of a reentry program in Alamance County offering safe, stable housing and paid employment through farm work.
Six years later, 11 acres of farmland were donated to the cause, and two years after that—on December 13th, 2016—the team welcomed its first resident.
Today, Benevolence is a fully-functioning farm and residential program that provides housing, employment, and wraparound social services for formerly incarcerated women in North Carolina. Since 2016, the farm has supported 25 residents.
The learning curve has been steep: neither sustaining an economically viable organic produce farm, nor creating a comfortable space for communal living are easy tasks, Powers said. That’s not to mention the added challenges of working with a formerly incarcerated population.
“Nonprofit farming was proving to be a financially difficult proposal, especially when we are hiring people that may have no farming experience,” said Powers. “So a lot of time is spent towards learning and education, and that can make it difficult to make an income that would sustain the farm operation.”
But in 2018, the farm switched up its model. “The staff at that time pivoted towards a body care enterprise line,” said Powers. “That is really good in the sense that the women grow the different herbs and flowers that are then infused into the body care products they make.”
Income from the farm’s body care line—which ranges in products from rosemary candles to lemon balm and peppermint muscle rub—is crucial to the farm’s ability to help its residents transition into normal life. “Our goal with that is to become more self-sustaining so that we can focus on this unique model that we have of supporting people with housing and employment wraparound services,” said Powers.
Financial stability allows the farm to pursue more advocacy work, as well as to help residents better transition into normal life.
The needs of women who have been incarcerated are varied and complex. “We think a lot about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs of, you know, first of all, just being at Benevolence, it’s a secure place to live in a secure place of employment,” said Powers.
But Benevolence seeks to provide much more than the basic food, water, and shelter, she said. “In modern day society you need an I.D., an understanding of computers and phones and the Internet.” In addition, Powers said, residents often face the financial constraints of being on parole, or involved in the court system.
According to Powers, the staff at Benevolence have to check their assumptions constantly. For example, does a person “really need to spend time on a writing class when they’re feeling stressed about not having enough money because their probation fees are $40 a month for nine months?”
“We approach things from a harm reduction practice, from a trauma informed care practice, and we really try to make sure that we’re not repeating or replicating the punitive or harmful systems from where a lot of the people we serve have come,” she said.
Covid-19 has introduced additional challenges, said Powers. For women exiting the confines of prison, autonomy is a necessity. However, since the onset of the pandemic, residents’ social lives have been constrained.
“I’m excited to not have to do that anymore,” Powers said, “because that has really been difficult for people who have just exited a carceral setting, where they can’t go be with the people they want, to a setting where everyone is telling you to stay at home.”
Looking to the future, Powers hopes Benevolence can provide longer-term affordable housing on its land. “We’re actually looking into building several tiny homes on our 13 acre property to serve as that second phase, because what the residents have indicated is ‘When we first get out, we maybe want to live alone, have some independence, but we don’t want to be totally alone.’”
For Deborah, former Benevolence resident and current Second Chance Coordinator, who didn’t want her last name to be used in this article, autonomy was something that needed to be eased into. “When you come from a fully structured environment, coming to a place that has no structure would have not worked for me because it would have scared me,” she said. “[The farm] had enough structure that I had a line to toe, but I could start becoming my own person at the same time.”
After 27 years in prison, two years at Benevolence Farm, and a short stint renting a room, Deborah is moving in off-site with another resident. Despite harsh housing barriers for people who have been convicted of felonies, the two women were able to find a place, and, according to Deborah, “It is wonderful. It’s a little place and it’s just big enough for her and I to get started.”