How are inmates supposed to transition to the world outside of prison?
For one pre-release program at the Homestead Correctional Institution, the answer is in entrepreneurship.
Nine women graduated this week from the Ladies Empowerment & Action (LEAP) program, wearing dark blue graduation caps and gowns accompanied by ear-to-ear smiles. This is the 13th class of graduates from LEAP which is currently only offered at Homestead Correctional Institution.
For some of these women, this is the first time they had ever graduated from anything. With misty eyes, they talked about how far they’ve come and what they learned over the 300 hours of coursework required for the program.
“You believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. You saw the potential when I thought there wasn’t any,” said Shaquanda Williams in her speech to the gathered crowd in the Homestead Correctional Institution’s recreation room.
The women were selected to be part of LEAP because they’re all nearing the end of their terms in prison and needed some help figuring out what life afterwards might look like.
“We are the Harvard of the corrections system,” said Mahlia Lindquist, executive director of LEAP. “For us, we really strive to do more than just [have them] not return to jail. We really look at quality of life because we think everyone deserves a chance to thrive and be happy, so we want them to have jobs and not just minimum-wage jobs. We want them to be able to support their families and lead productive happy lives.”
And it’s clear the graduates felt the pressure to not waste the opportunity.
LEAP participants go through counseling and job skills training and are encouraged to develop a business plan. It’s not always easy to get a job working for someone else when you’ve been in prison, so entrepreneurship gives them options and hope.
The statewide recidivism rate, defined as the percentage of inmates who return to prison within three years of being released, hovers around 26 percent. That number is slightly lower—14 percent—when looking at just women. LEAP’s recidivism rate swings between 4 and 6 percent, according to Lindquist.
Gloria Pettit, one of the graduates from the Homestead Correctional Institution, put together a business proposal to start an elderly care service called The Whole Kit N Kaboodle.
“I chose that because I’m passionate about giving back to people, our senior citizens. They did it for us when we were young so it’s our turn to do it for them. I’ve worked in nursing homes so I feel comfortable with that,” said Pettit
Right after the graduation, Pettit didn’t just take off her cap and gown; she also took off the prison uniform she wore underneath it. It was the last day of her 18-month sentence. And so for her begins an uphill battle.
One of the biggest challenges for recently released inmates, aside from employability or having a change of clothes, is housing.
“For the first six years [of LEAP], when women got out of prison… there was literally no place for them to go,” said Lindquist. “When they get out, because of their record, a lot of people don’t want to rent to them.”
Couple that with challenges of getting employed, and many women end up living in homeless shelters.
LEAP has tried to remedy that challenge a bit. In partnership with the Center for Social Change, the program has opened a house for graduates, where Pettit will be living for the time being. But while the program would like to serve more than the dozen LEAP alumni that they can accommodate now, funding is a major limiting factor.
Pettit said she’s hopeful about the future.
“I’m starting over completely from scratch,” said Pettit. “I have nothing that ties me to my old life. I’ve learned valuable skills, entrepreneurship, life skills, coping skills from the LEAP program and I’m excited, I can’t wait."
Before she registers at the local police office, starts her job search or begins to put her business plan into action, she has one plan first.
“I’m going to Dunkin' Donuts,” she laughed.