Female Prison Inmates Trained To Start Businesses

Former convicts can have a difficult time finding a job, especially when the economy is weak.

But at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, a women's prison in Oregon, inmates can learn how to reverse that trend. A course called Lifelong Information For Entrepreneurs, or LIFE, is designed to provide inmates the skills to start their own small businesses after they are released.

MercyCorps Northwest, the Portland-based branch of an international development organization, started the program four years ago. Doug Cooper, assistant director of MercyCorps Northwest, says the program was built out of MercyCorps' experience in international aid.

"We were looking for ways that we could apply our expertise around economic development and small business management to populations that could use it," Cooper says. "It's identical to what we do internationally, except we apply it here in Oregon and Washington."

Graduates have opened various businesses, such as courier companies and cosmetology practices, and sell crafts at farmers markets. Although MercyCorps Northwest could not provide an official count yet, the organization says, unofficially, only three of the LIFE program's 100 or so graduates have reoffended. The national average is more than 50 percent.

'Invaluable' Skill Sets

For seven months, the students receive business training as well as soft skills such as setting goals and taking care of themselves. One student, Saresa Whitley, who is serving a five-year sentence for an assault charge, has a job lined up after her release in January. She also plans to start her own small business selling handicrafts.

"When I was talking about knowing if my business is viable or not, through a profit-and-loss model, I was like, 'Wow, I didn't even know the word "viable" before, and now I do,' " Whitley says. "I've learned a lot about how to write a business plan, about effective communications skills, how to listen — something I didn't know how to do before."

Cynthia Thompson, who is serving time for identity theft, says these lessons are a crucial part of the program.

"I think the goal of it is to produce people that are being part of the community, paying their taxes and being volunteers," Thompson says. "Not just necessarily successful small businesses, but just successful, accountable people in the community."

One former inmate, Lori, graduated from the first LIFE class while in prison for aggravated theft. She now runs an auto repair shop, and asked that her last name not be revealed. She worries about the stigma of being an ex-convict, and the impact that could have on her business.

"We work so hard, and we go the extra mile for any customer, and, you know, bad word of mouth spreads faster than anything else," she says.

After graduating, Lori continued to check in with a MercyCorps mentor for what she calls "invaluable" advice for several questions she had, such as whether it's worth setting up a website for a business, and ways to advertise a business for free.

MercyCorps Northwest recently began another LIFE program at a women's prison in Washington state. Doug Cooper hopes the concept spreads to more than 1.5 million inmates at prisons across the country.

"Ninety-five, 96 percent of those people are going to come back to our communities with the stigma of being an ex-felon," he says. "And to the extent that we make it hard for them to come back and be successful, it hurts everybody. It hurts our community, it hurts our tax base."

Cooper says teaching former inmates to think like entrepreneurs helps them become successful, whether they work for themselves or others. Helping them achieve that success, he says, is what a corrections system should be about: rehabilitation.

Saresa Whitley plans to apply the lessons she has learned both to her planned handicraft business and to her life.

"When I walk in that room, I'm not just a number anymore. I'm a person," she says. "And they have taught me to set goals, and I didn't have that before. I didn't have hope that I can do something different."

The current entrepreneurship class graduates June 9.

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