By Lisa Dzera
After being in prison for many years, assimilating back to your old life and finding a job upon release is anything but easy.
There’s the stigma with hiring ex-cons. There’s the difficult task of talking about your relevant skills in an interview when you haven’t worked in the past few years. There’s the fact that, after being treated poorly and dehumanized in prison, it’s difficult to transition to life outside of prison. There’s the reality that many of these people went to prison because they were in an environment where breaking the law was necessary to put food on the table—and this environment will not be any different when they are released from prison.
That’s why Tanya Jisa started Benevolence Farm in Graham, North Carolina. Benevolence Farm hopes to help previously incarcerated women adjust to life outside of prison in an environment that encourages personal and career growth. These women live and work on a farm and learn the basics of running a business. Depending on their interests, they can focus on and explore different career paths, such as marketing, finance and customer relations.
“They’re not criminals,” Tanya explains. “They’re women who have had really hard choices and done the best they could.”
Tanya originally got the idea for starting Benevolence Farm when she read an article in the New York Times stating that 1 in 100 US citizens are incarcerated in our country. Because there are many more programs that work with men who were once in prison than women, Tanya wanted to create a program focusing on women.
“I went to the farmers market,” she said, “and thought, ‘What if I started up a farm for women who were coming out of prison to help them get back on their feet?’”
Tanya brought her idea to the community and received overwhelming support. She explained that there is a huge need for any services for women coming out of prison, especially housing and jobs. When women are released from prison, many are not able to find jobs, and those that do mostly find low-skill, minimum wage jobs that are not sustainable.
“We need to enable success for these women,” Tanya said.
In November 2013, 11 acres of land was donated for Benevolence Farm to use. With the financial support of the Snider Family Charitable Fund, the organization purchased a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom house on 2 acres directly adjacent to the original 11 acres. This summer, Tanya and her team partnered with the NCSU College of Design to design and build a 985 square foot pole barn where residents will wash and prepare harvests for the farmers markets. The barn was completed on July 30.
Benevolence Farm’s first residents will arrive later this year. To decide which women will live and work at the farm, Tanya will consult with the Department of Public Safety, conduct interviews with interested candidates, and then bring currently incarcerated women who have been determined to be a good fit for the program to Benevolence Farm on a day pass to ensure that the women fully understand what will be required of them to reside on the farm. Then, on their release date, these women will be transported to Benevolence Farm, where they will stay for at least six months and up to two years. This program is targeted at women who have been in prison for 3+ years and thus need a longer period of time to get re-established.
“These are women who really want to turn it around,” Tanya explains. “They want to make a difference. They want to contribute in positive ways. They just don’t have the opportunity to do that. And so, we’re giving them that chance.”
Benevolence Farm hosts farm work days on the third Saturday of every month to get the farm ready to begin growing vegetables. To find ways to get involved, visit the Benevolence Farm Facebook page or website. And don’t miss the 2nd Annual Second Chance Dine & Dance on October 23.