By Lisa Dzera
After being in prison for many years, assimilating to life on the outside and finding a job upon release is anything but easy. There’s the stigma with hiring previously incarcerated people. 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 Carrboro, North Carolina. Benevolence Farm helps 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 about one in 100 U.S. citizens will be incarcerated at some point in their lives. Because there are many more programs that work with men who were once in prison than with 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 jail, especially related to housing and jobs. When women are released from prison, many are not able to find jobs, and those that do mostly find low-skill jobs that are not sustainable.
“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.”
Eleven acres of land were donated for Benevolence Farm to use. With the financial support of the Snider Family Charitable Fund, Tanya purchased a three bedroom, two bathroom house on two acres directly adjacent to the original eleven acres. To decide which women will live and work at the farm, Tanya will bring currently incarcerated women to Benevolence Farm on a day pass and ensure that the program works for them. Then, on their release date, these women will be transported to Benevolence Farm, where they will stay for at least six months or up to two years. This program is targeted at women who have been in prison for more time and thus need a longer period of time to get reestablished. Benevolence Farm’s first residents will move into the farm sometime next year.
“One of my proudest accomplishments is founding Benevolence Farm,” Tanya explains. “It is not something I ever imagined doing, nor something I felt capable of accomplishing, and yet I stepped outside of my comfort zone so many times on so many levels and persisted, often against some pretty significant obstacles, both internal and external. External obstacles included the stigma of advocating for and serving formerly incarcerated women, securing funding for something that had never been done before, and operating in a community where some neighbors were significantly opposed to our presence.”