Chicago bee farm offers help to ex-inmates, and a model for US

With bipartisan support growing to reduce America's prison population, there's a need for more prisoner reentry programs such as Sweet Beginnings.

Joshua Sudock/The Orange County Register/AP/File
In this file photo, an Italian bee collects pollen from a poppy flower at Dustin Gimbel's home in Long Beach, Calif. Gimbel raises the insects to help maintain the health of his garden. He also harvests the colony's honey.

For more than a decade, an area outside Chicago’s O’Hare airport has been the site of an innovative social enterprise combining bees, undevelopable land, and former prisoners in search of a new beginning.

Since 2004, Sweet Beginnings in the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago’s West Side, has employed more than 400 ex-cons, training them as beekeepers, helping to maintain and harvest 131 hives, many housed on unused land owned by O’Hare. The company makes honey – sold in stores around the city – as well as other products such as shower gel, lotion, and lip balm.

Graduates of the program, which was set up by the North Lawndale Employment Network with seed money from the Illinois Department of Corrections, have a recidivism rate of just 4 percent, compared with the national average of 40 percent. Last year, it even turned a profit of $9,000.

But founder Brenda Palms-Barber says the program still doesn’t have enough available jobs to meet the demand.

In addition to the several hundred people it has employed over the past decade, many more show up each month looking for work.

Last week a woman named Patricia, recently released from prison, came to Ms. Palms-Barber with a simple request.

“She said, ‘You know, Ms. Barber, I just want to be a productive citizen,’ ” Palms-Barber recalls. “I thought, ‘That’s pretty beautiful. It’s so simple, but it’s beautiful.’”

It also can be a tall order. Despite the minimal expectations for life on the outside, simply becoming a productive citizen can be a challenge for many ex-cons.

“We’re not a very forgiving society,” adds Palms-Barber. “It’s tough.” 

Reentry programs such as Sweet Beginnings may be in even higher demand if a bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week makes it to President Obama’s desk. The bill, which would reduce certain mandatory minimum prison sentences to remedy overcrowding in federal prisons, enjoys bipartisan support – as does the overall issue of criminal justice reform.

'People know what prison feels like'

But, while praising the bill as a bold first step, criminal justice advocates note that the country already struggles to reintegrate ex-convicts into society.

"If you're not preparing people for success when they leave prison, they're more likely to turn to dangerous activities," says Jeremy Haile, the federal advocacy counsel for the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization advocating for criminal justice reform.

Roughly 600,000 people get released from state and federal prisons every year. Due to their criminal records, they find it difficult getting back on their feet. Having a record can make it harder for an ex-convict to find a job, find housing, or get food assistance or a driver’s license.

“It’s when doors start closing and they don’t feel good about themselves, that contributes to the cycle of going back to prison again and again,” says Palms-Barber.

“People know what prison feels like,” she adds. “If we can keep them in the economy and keep them working, then no one wants to go back again.”

Reentry programs can range from food trucks in New York and New Jersey that teach former prisoners under 25 how to prepare trendy, tasty food for urbanites on the go to Kalamazoo’s Confections With Convictions, which trains former juvenile offenders with felony records to make truffles and hand-dipped caramels. Chicago’s Safer Foundation has been helping people with criminal records find jobs for 40 years, while Philadelphia’s Baker Industries helps place former convicts in manual labor jobs, and Baltimore’s Jericho Reentry Project trains young men between 18 and 20.

US Attorney for Colorado John Walsh noted in a panel discussion hosted by the Marshall Project last Thursday that there are not enough reentry programs to cope with demand.

"600,000 prisoners [are] coming back into society every year,” he said. “Do we have 600,000 people's worth of re-entry programs? I don’t think so."

The Second Chance Act, which was signed into law by former President George W. Bush in 2008, provides two-year grants to state and local governments to help them provide reintegration programs and help ex-cons find employment, treatment, mentoring and other services once they’re outside prison. Since 2009, nearly 600 grants have been awarded to government and community groups to reduce high recidivism rates and support communities, according to a September 2014 report by the Council of State Governments.

But funding has dropped in recent years. Congress appropriated $100 million to the programs in fiscal year 2010, according to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, but $70 million in 2012.

"Looking at the system overall, no, there's not enough help in reentry. These programs aren’t funded like they need to be," Haile says. "We do need a more robust approach to keep our communities safe." 

The first in the office

Reentry is ultimately about safety, experts say, and the cost of not giving enough help to newly-released convicts could be steep, especially as lawmakers pursue more criminal justice reform.

“It’s about justice for individuals, and it’s also about public safety,” he adds. "If you're not helping people succeed once they get out, it's counterproductive for public safety."

Mr. Obama, in the Marshall Project discussion on Thursday, warned that "we will lose the public" if new reforms are followed by increases in crime or recidivism.

"If we try to do everything at once without having data or evidence, and suddenly you see big spikes in crime again," he said, "then suddenly we're back into the politics of 'lock them up.' "

"If, on the other hand, we do it systematically, methodically, we see what works, we see what doesn't," he continued. "If [we do] all those things and prove that we're still doing a good job controlling crime, then I think we have something to build on."

Palms-Barber agrees that, while the country is “really rethinking how reentry happens,” there are still improvements to be made, starting with how outgoing inmates are connected to reentry programs upon release. Most of the people approaching the NELN and Sweet Beginnings are referred there by a former employee.

“People shouldn’t have to find us,” she says. “I do think it’s time to get serious about making sure people are connecting to these types of programs.”

One Sweet Beginnings employee from North Lawndale, Jonny, has been in prison 10 times for minor drug offenses, Palms-Barber says. After years of irregular work and spending more time on the street than at home with his six children, he is now the first person in the Sweet Beginnings office every morning.

His kids have “never had that kind of consistency with him,” says Palms-Barber. “[And] it means so much to him to make honest money and to see his family respecting him in a different way.”

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