From Bars to Freedom: Prisoner Co-Ops Boost Employment, Self-Esteem and Support Re-Entry into Society

By Moriarty, Meegan | Rural Cooperatives, January-February 2016 | Go to article overview

From Bars to Freedom: Prisoner Co-Ops Boost Employment, Self-Esteem and Support Re-Entry into Society


Moriarty, Meegan, Rural Cooperatives


Artists create, exhibit and sell their work through Cooperativa de Servidos ARIGOS in Puerto Rico.

At the Shifting Gears bike shop in Stevens Point, Wis., skilled mechanics tune-up, refurbish and sell pre-owned bicycles while educating the community on biking's beneficial impact on health and the environment.

At the Cooperativa Alice in Milan, Italy, women create costumes for television and theater, design clothing and make uniforms for the local football team.

Caterers and chefs feed customers at the Cafe Solberg in Gotenberg, Sweden.

These business organizations may be diverse, but they have a few things in common. All of them are cooperatives. And all of them benefit prisoners or ex-prisoners.

Prison populations

More than 2.2 million people in the United States are in prison. Worldwide, 9 million people are incarcerated. The United States has the highest prison rate in the world, with 724 people per 100,000 imprisoned. Another 600,000 are on probation or parole. In 2014, the cost to the taxpayer of incarcerating just one individual in federal prison was $29,291.

Almost 3 percent of U.S. adults are under correctional supervision (in prison, on probation or on parole). Juvenile detention centers house 54,148 youth offenders. More than three-quarters of people released from jail are arrested again within five years. More than half of these recidivists are arrested within the first year of release.

A disproportionate number of incarcerated individuals are African American males (37 percent) or Hispanic males (22 percent); black females are imprisoned at twice the rate of white females.

Strict sentencing rules contribute to the high prison rate in the United States. For example, under current federal law, people found guilty of three drug offenses are given life in prison without parole. But these rules may change.

Sentencing reform is a priority of the Obama administration. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123), introduced by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), was passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Oct. 22. That legislation would reduce drug-related mandatory sentences significantly, reduce the wide gap in sentencing terms for powder vs. crack cocaine offenses, and provide credit toward sentence reduction for nonviolent offenders who undergo drug rehabilitation and/or take certain classes. The legislation would apply only for the 200,000 federal prisoners. However, states may follow suit, based on the concern that too many people are in prison for too long.

A reduction in years spent in prison would equate to more individuals re-entering society. A small number of these prisoners (about 13,000 in 2013) may have acquired job skills while in prison from UNICOR, the federal prison system's in-house employment program. However, the vast majority of ex-prisoners lack job skills, education, self-confidence and social supports. Some face the additional challenges of mental illness and addiction.

"In addition to dehumanizing people who are incarcerated, we also totally take away all of their economic opportunities--their livelihoods," Jessica Gordon Nembhard, professor at John Jay College, City University of New York, said during an October roundtable. The event was sponsored by the Sustainable Economies Law Center in Oakland, Calif.

How can these people face a difficult job market where many employers screen out ex-offenders? Italy may have an answer.

Italy's cooperative system

Italy has been a leader in forming cooperatives, starting in the 1970s, when the Italian economy was suffering a downturn and individuals needed an innovative solution to address high unemployment. The social cooperative movement gained momentum when caregivers were faced with the deinstitutionalization of psychiatric patients.

In 1991, Italy enacted law 381/91, which defined two types of social cooperatives: Type A and Type B. …

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