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Imprisoned in poverty

By Simone Jasper

A young man’s mother left him at the dumpster when he was an infant. After enduring abuse at foster homes, he turned to a gang for companionship. Now, he’s one of the many Alamance County residents trapped in the criminal justice system.

Hundreds of inmates are released into Alamance County from North Carolina prisons each year, and many of them don’t have the resources to fulfill basic needs. In many cases, it’s legal to discriminate against convicted felons for jobs, housing and food stamps. Residents who are convicted often come from poor communities and the barriers they face upon their release continue the cycle of poverty.

“Many people who have gone to prison grew up with poverty,” said Tanya Jisa, founder and executive director of Benevolence Farm, an organization for women exiting prison. “They’ve grown up with homelessness. It’s been a challenge in their lives, usually from a very early age. Those are some of the reasons they end up making the kinds of choices that land them in prison—because they have so few choices having grown up with so few resources.”

Nearly 400 inmates were released into Alamance County last year, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. But without stable jobs and housing, many people end up back in prison.

Six years ago, Phil Bowers noticed that many ex-convicts in the county were stuck in the criminal justice system. When he saw that men and women coming out of prison struggled to pay probation fees, he decided to start Sustainable Alamance in Burlington.

“Probation fees were a requirement of the courts,” Bowers said. “But they had no legitimate way to earn them because nobody would hire them. So somehow, we were all crazy when they went out and sold drugs again. [I noticed the] same thing with child support and all these issues.”

On average, it costs nearly $30,000 a year to keep someone behind bars in North Carolina. Through his efforts to find jobs for ex-convicts, Bowers said he’s brought tax money to the local economy instead of feeding it to the criminal justice system.

“For all the guys that have graduated through the full-time employment, we’ve kept almost $3.5 million out of the prison system,” he said.

In addition to connecting former inmates with local employers, Bowers has started microbusinesses to create jobs. One of the businesses is a moving truck company, in which ex-convicts help people move in and out of their homes. Another business allows program participants to grow crops on a field in Burlington.

“We have a local business owner and landowner here in town that has given us four acres of land in downtown Burlington that we want to farm,” Bowers said. “It’s in a USDA food desert. We know that most of the health problems—diabetes, heart disease, this kind of stuff—come from the poor neighborhoods. They need access to healthy food. Why can’t we help them learn how to grow it?”

Despite these efforts, helping people stay out of prison isn’t easy. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that two-thirds of former prisoners were rearrested within three years of their release.

Bowers said for every 10 people who are referred to Sustainable Alamance, nine never come back. Many quit because they expect Bowers to give them jobs. Instead, he wants them to demonstrate a desire to work.

“We help those that want help,” Bowers said. “And we’re always here. If they come and they leave and they come back, they’re always welcome. Nobody’s ever dismissed from the program, no matter what.”

Through her organization, Jisa hopes to curb the recidivism rate for women. In North Carolina, the female prison population increased 6 percent between January through October of 2013 and the same time span this year. During those months, the adult male prison population in the state increased 1 percent.

On her organization’s farm in Graham, Jisa wants to house 12 women who have been released from facilities across the state. She said Benevolence Farm will provide programming that’s specific for women, including therapies focused on domestic violence and sexual abuse.

“Providing stability and support for these people who really do want to start over and are trying the best they can to get a job and be successful can help them stay out of prison,” Jisa said.

Bowers said it’s rewarding to help people lead better lives. He said the key to success is taking time to work with the needs that ex-offenders bring to the table.

“[Prison is] a warehouse for people, and you’ve got to protect yourself at all times,” he said. “So when you bring that kind of mentality back to the streets, you’ve got to help them find a way to help them overcome that. And it gets very messy and it just takes time.”

When he started Sustainable Alamance, Bowers said Alamance County had the 11th highest number of people returning from prison. Although the numbers have declined, he’s still making an impact.

In his years with Sustainable Alamance, Bowers helped one former inmate to reconcile with his daughters after 30 years of drug and alcohol abuse. He also helped one man who started on the streets when he was 16 and now works two jobs while attending college.

Despite his success stories, Bowers said it’s difficult to recruit volunteers and get financial support for his organization.

“Some people have refused to make contributions because [we help ex-convicts],” he said. “They say, ‘Well, these guys had their chance, and they blew it. Why should I contribute to help them out?’”

But, according to Bowers, the people he helps have potential. He said many of the participants in his program made poor choices as young people that have affected the rest of their lives. He said he tries to draw the talents out of ex-convicts, like the man who joined a gang.

“I don’t agree with gangs, but I can understand how he got there,” Bowers said. “But [he’s] an amazing young man, an amazing writer. He could very easily be a community leader if we can help unpack some of life for him.”