Among the many differences between living in a correctional facility and living in the community is the simple act of just being. Enjoying a quiet moment outdoors while feeling safe and secure in one’s surroundings might be taken for granted by the average person but can be a radical concept for people who are incarcerated.

The freedom to sit with oneself and one’s thoughts in nature is one of the benefits of Benevolence Farm, a trauma-informed nonprofit social program in rural Graham, North Carolina. “Benevolence Farm allows formerly incarcerated women time to pause and reset while giving them a safe place to live and a source of income so they can successfully rejoin the community,” says Executive Director Kristen Powers. The farm’s innovative program provides unsupervised onsite housing on an herb and flower farm, where residents work paid jobs and gain important life skills while receiving social, behavioral, and practical supports.

A Home, a Living Wage, and Skill Development

The centerpiece of Benevolence Farm is its residential farmhouse, which offers housing for 6 women at a time to stay for up 2 years. The farm is not a halfway house, and no participant is required to stay—but most do. “We are filling a dire need for housing for women exiting incarceration in North Carolina,” says Powers. “The rate of women’s incarceration has increased nearly 800% nationwide since the inception of the war on drugs, yet the reentry support programs tailored to women have nowhere near kept up with that rapid rise.” The farm is currently raising funds for additional housing through a small-home development that will provide longer-term, private residences for participants who have completed the first phase of the program.

The women at Benevolence Farm are expected to dedicate between 8 and 24 hours per week to support the farm through various agricultural activities. The farm grows and sells fresh produce, flowers, and herbs and manufactures body care products from them. Only after the women have been on the farm for 6 months are they are encouraged to obtain offsite employment, to allow them the space to breathe and work on themselves before diving into full-time jobs. They are guaranteed transportation to work and any other appointments or commitments in the community (e.g., parole meetings, doctor’s appointments, or job interviews). The farm’s staff, including peers and coaches, work with participants on leadership and job skills, self-sufficiency, personal growth, and emotional healing.

Flexible and Supportive Admission

There are no strict admission criteria, although familiarity with and interest in rural and agricultural or farm living makes for the best fit. “Any woman-identifying individual who is interested in our program is a worthy candidate,” says Powers. “We offer flexible support for a whole range of behavioral health and medical needs and are happy to accept women with any length of incarceration upon their release.” Women can interview with the program while still incarcerated, and if accepted, farm staff will pick them up on the day of their release from a local prison. Upon arrival, the women are given a personalized care package with their previously identified favorite snacks or products, a change of clothes in their size and style, and a warm welcome.

Because the farm is in a rural area, they are able to accept women with sex-related convictions who are often limited in their housing and job opportunities because of sex offender registry restrictions.

Trauma-Informed, Participant-Led Supports

The farm doesn’t offer onsite behavioral health services but partners with community agencies to meet all of the social, medical, and behavioral needs of its residents. Everyone living at the farm is asked to explore a healing modality that makes the most sense to them. These range from traditional cognitive behavioral therapy with a licensed counselor in the community, to 12-step programs, to spiritual practices.

“Nearly every single woman coming out of incarceration has trauma, whether from before their involvement with the justice system, as a result of it, or both,” says Powers. “The farm follows a person-centered, trauma-informed approach and focuses on our residents’ individual journeys of healing.” Benevolence Farm also helps participants with all of the logistical concerns that come with release from incarceration, such as getting identification, finding a permanent apartment, and regaining custody of their kids. Participants work on the farm three days per week and focus on themselves the remaining days, whether that means resting, relaxing, or attending behavioral, medical, social, or legal appointments.

Funding and Advocacy Work

The farm program is primarily funded through individual charitable donations and major gifts. Additionally, the body-care product enterprise provides revenue that goes back into the farm. The mission of Benevolence Farm is to cultivate leadership, promote sustainable livelihoods, and reap structural change with individuals impacted by the criminal justice system in North Carolina. Among the issues that the farm aims to resolve is to get to the root reasons of why so many women don’t succeed in reentry and create supports and programs to empower them to succeed in their lives after incarceration. This includes a strong push for guaranteed identification (ID) other than a prison ID for women who are exiting incarceration. “A prison ID carries so much stigma,” says Powers. “And often, it’s just a poor paper copy of their actual prison-issued ID. In order to get a job, to get an apartment, to really move on with life, women need a valid form of identification. We’re working with the state to make sure this happens for every woman leaving incarceration in NC.” Other efforts have included bookmobiles that allow formerly incarcerated women to access library books and other resources when they are not permitted to enter public libraries because of their records. Farm leaders are also working with state housing authorities to consider easing restrictions on people with criminal records who could benefit from public housing.

Among the 32 women who have lived in the farmhouse, close to 90% have remained in the community and not returned to prison. The farm is currently working to define and quantify true measures of “success” after reentry, which might include sustained reunification with children, permanent housing, or steady jobs. “Our goal is to see women thriving in their lives after incarceration. We provide them the support they need to take a breath and think about how they can be successful, contributing members of their communities and then help them get there,” says Powers. “This benefits our whole community, not just the residents of the farm.”

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