Building the Worker Cooperative Movement Behind Prison Bars

You don’t have to dig deep to find startling statistics about the state of mass incarceration in the US. The issues run deep, have been around for hundreds of years, and the system is rotten no matter which way you look at it.

Outside of a small number of successful programs and initiatives, we are failing to support people as they re-enter society. The Bureau of Justice Statistics completed a 9 year study and found that 5 out of 6 state prisoners were arrested within 9 years of their release.

5 out of 6. If that isn’t failure of a system, I don’t know what is.

Of course, according those who defend our current prison complex, place the blame on “a lack of individual agency” – arguing that people who are incarcerated, once out, have to make the choice and commit themselves to not getting back inside. If only.

To admit that issues like poverty, education, racism, housing insecurity, implicit bias, and faulty sentencing play an even greater role than self-determination would be an indictment of both our prison and economic system. For five years, through the TESA Collective, I have been running classes inside of the Franklin County House of Corrections in Western Massachusetts, in partnership with Greenfield Community College, to lead a class about worker-owned cooperatives. I have also been working with currently and formerly incarcerated people to launch a worker-owned co-op they will democratically own and run. Through this experience, I’ve learned even more about the injustices of our prison system, how economic exploitation harms incarcerated individuals, and how we can use the co-op model to challenge this system.

Worker Cooperatives: By and For Formerly Incarcerated People

A worker-owned cooperative is a business that is equally owned and managed by its workers, and they are being increasingly adopted by formerly incarcerated people to obtain self-autonomy and economic security. 

I don’t presume to think that worker co-ops can solve the deep seated issues of racism and economic exploitation. That being said, I have experienced the way that the co-op model can create space for ownership, economic self-determination, and meaningful employment.

It is widely accepted that a lack of employment is a major factor in recidivism rates (reducing the rate of which people return to prison after they leave). In most states, you have to check a box on a job application if you have committed a felony. With a crowded field of applicants, this is usually enough to disqualify you from the start.

One thing I have found working inside of a prison is that incarcerated people really want to help others. As their sentence winds down, their employment connections on the outside are usually established through a network of those who have also been inside. And on the other side of the coin, folks are often thinking about the people who remain, and are making plans to support them or help them find a job or housing when they get out.

Worker co-ops with individuals who have been formerly incarcerated can provide an excellent bridge towards a job, ownership, and meaningful employment. If someone who has been incarcerated owns a business, their ability to provide employment to someone who has just gotten out is exponentially greater than if they are lower tier employee or contractor. I worked inside for five years teaching about and organizing co-ops. And though the faces changed, the thread of connection between those who were inside working on the project, and those who had gotten out and were still working on the project, was the lifeblood that made it all possible.

Meaningful Employment. Not Just Employment.

Getting a job isn’t the only thing that matters. Work needs to mean something. People who have been inside want to give back, they want to prove to the community that they can contribute, and that they can make a positive impact on their community. One of my former students has two jobs, totaling over 70 hours of work a week. He isn’t hard pressed to find a job, one might say. I’ve heard whispers: shouldn’t he just be happy he has work?

Well, to be frank, when you work 40 hours a week in a slaughterhouse and another 25 in the back-end of a supermarket, it can be soul crushing. It is pretty easy to understand why folks struggle with the urges to use drugs and go back to a previous lifestyle where they controlled their schedule and interacted with their community.

I am a firm believer that being an owner helps to create meaning. When you own your work it means more – you have responsibility, agency, and the ability to shape the course of the short-term and long-term. Just take a listen to another one of my former students and colleagues talk about why he wants to haul rotting food waste, and what it means to him:

Economic Self-Determination is Key

This is one of the points that is seems like everyone can get behind. After having every minute of your day controlled by someone else for years, the ability to control your own work, and have a hand in shaping your economic future is immensely powerful. This is one of the incredible ways that co-ops can support those who have been formerly incarcerated.

As an owner at my own worker co-op, I know it is not as simple as “OK, I own a business, if I just work more, or do X, I will make more money.” That said, the simple fact that you can have a say in the shape and direction of your work can be revolutionary. When we were designing the Compost Co-op with folks inside, people wanted to make sure we made a co-op that was responsive to the needs of those who have been formerly incarcerated. For example, folks stressed the importance of flexible schedules, the desire to be outside, be seen, and do physical work, as well as having less punitive structures, like restorative justice practices as integral parts of the structure of the co-op.

Don’t get me wrong, this stuff isn’t easy to implement when you are trying to start a business, but there is a huge difference between wanting something and being the person in charge of making it possible.

Now What?

A map of a farm-focused co-op developed by students in a class at the Franklin County jail in Massachusetts

We really just scratched the surface here. A lot of work still needs to be done. There are a lot of great co-op developers and organizers out there without the connection to those inside. There are a lot of awesome educators and activists working with folks inside, but many of them don’t have experience with co-ops or business development. We need to build those connections, and we need to put in the time: not just months, but years.

Owning your work is powerful, and the impact can’t be understated. I’m looking forward to more years of working with the incredible and inspiring individuals inside and out to make worker cooperatives a significant tool for change for incarcerated populations.