Cupids Health

Planting a Life—and a Future—After Prison at Benevolence Farm

In February 2017, when Keia Blount was preparing to be released after serving a five-year prison term at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, she had no idea where to go.

“Family was not an option to go back to,” she says. “There was nowhere for me to go except for a shelter.”

At the last minute, she found Benevolence Farm in Graham, North Carolina, a transitional residential and employment program on an organic farm. She applied, a few members of the staff came to visit her in prison, and within in a week, she was admitted—just in time for her release.

“Women will be released from state prisons, but they are not guaranteed safe and secure housing,” says Kristen Powers, the executive director of Benevolence Farm.

Due to the war on drugs, which began in the early 1970s, the number of women in U.S. federal and state prisons grew by nearly 800 percent between 1978 and 2014. But a corresponding increase in services for those women never arrived, says Powers.

As a result, in North Carolina alone, more than 2,000 women are released from state prisons each year without the infrastructure in place to adequately support them. This dearth of services prompted Tanya Jisa, a social worker who had worked at a juvenile detention center, to launch Benevolence Farm in 2008 based on her own love of farming and desire to help women break free of the prison cycle. Benevolence was created as a place where the principles of horticultural therapy could be applied to help women readjust to life outside of prison.

After acquiring the land through a donation in 2014 and preparing and cultivating it, Jisa took on their first resident, Melissie Davis, in December 2016. Blount was the second. Now, nearly five years later, the farm has hosted a total of 30 women, including the four currently residing there. By the end of the year, the house should be full with six residents. Benevolence residents stay an average one to one-and-a-half years, with a maximum stay of two years.

An overhead shot of part of Benevolence Farms. (Photo by Above the Trees Photography, courtesy of Benevolence Farms)

An overhead shot of part of Benevolence Farms. (Photo by Above the Trees Photography, courtesy of Benevolence Farms)

“Prison is such an anti-natural place,” Powers says. “So what could be the benefit of nature, healing, and exposure to dirt and hands in the soil?” That’s the question they started with.

A Connection to the Earth

For the first two weeks after Eden Gustavsen arrived at Benevolence in May 2018, she was able to relax and decompress after the 19 months she had spent in prison.

“I was really glad they gave me that time to hang out and get acclimated,” says Gustavsen. Growing up, her father had a small farm, and before being incarcerated, she had lived in the mountains, where she spent time outside. “I was excited to have a connection with the earth again.”

Benevolence Farm sits on 13 acres. The main residential house is a small brick structure with three bedrooms where the women live, two to a room.

A few yards from the house is a greenhouse where bundles of herbs hang to dry, and beyond that is a shelter for tractors and farm equipment. Rows of flowers and lavender, rosemary, and other herbs grow in one plot, and behind the house site sits a field of blueberries and an area where they are planning to build small homes to accommodate more women. There is also a chicken coop, and underneath the house is a large workshop where the residents turn the herbs and flowers into lotion, soap, and candles.

Although the farm receives external funding from individuals and grants, it still needs to bring in revenue. It used to grow and sell more fruits and vegetables, but it wasn’t fiscally sustainable. So, two years ago, they pivoted to focus primarily on value-added body-care products, which they sell in local businesses and online.

The benefits of gardening and farming have been shown in many populations. “When you’re in prison, it’s pretty sedentary,” Gustavsen says. “When you come out and have that physical push, that really helps. You have that confidence and feel stronger physically.”

“Just being out in nature and being outside, pulling weeds, it’s super therapeutic,” says Megan Holmes, a transition coordinator at a juvenile detention facility in Texas and lead author of a 2019 study showing that horticultural and similar outdoor community service programs were more successful at reducing recidivism than other kinds of programs. Benevolence Farm’s recidivism rate is around 5 percent, lower than the national average of roughly 40 percent.

There are a number of reasons for this, according to Joel Flagler, a registered horticultural therapist who works as a professor and agricultural extension agent at Rutgers University. Horticulture, while not necessarily easy, doesn’t require a specific degree or certification to participate. For that reason, it can provide an accessible path toward consistent employment for those with little or no other options.

“Plants are non-judgmental,” Flagler says. “Plants will respond to any caregiver.”

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