BLOG | Social co-operatives and prison systems

The 2015 International Labour Organization’s Co-operatives and the World of Work Research Conference in Antalya, Turkey (8-10 November), included a session on the use of co-operatives in the...

The 2015 International Labour Organization’s Co-operatives and the World of Work Research Conference in Antalya, Turkey (8-10 November), included a session on the use of co-operatives in the field of marginalisation and rehabilitation. Betsy Dribben, attorney, lobbyist and former director of policy at the ICA, looks at how prisons, prisoners and prison workers around the world are using the co-operative model to support reintegration and reduce recidivism.

A good example of how co-operatives can make a difference in people’s lives comes with the use of the social co-operative model in prison systems around the globe.

This was passionately discussed during the ILO’s Co-operatives: World of Work Research Conference Nov 9-10 in Antalya Turkey. The theme was “looking at throwaway people who are marginalised, and developing worker co-operatives that humanize rehabilitation,” said Dr Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City who organised and moderated the panel.

According to researcher Dr Isobel M. Findlay, associate professor of business communication at the University of Saskatchewan, co-operatives gave aboriginal women incarcerated for two years or less “agency and a voice so they could reconstruct their life stories”.

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Clockwise from bottom left: Valerio Pellirossi, Dr Isobel M. Findlay, Dr. Beth Weaver and Dr Jessica Gordon Nembhard speak with Betsy Dribben

“It is so important we listen to them,” she added, describing how the women prisoners she surveyed were “pushed around, silenced in many ways.” They had talents, she said, but “they just needed triggers”.

In general, aboriginal women face higher unemployment and lower wages. Moreover there is another shocking statistic: globally the female population is the fastest growing prison population. This can be seen especially within the aboriginal female population, with an 85% incarceration increase in the last decade.

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Dr Findlay also underscored that prison co-operatives in Canada and Italy “have supported reintegration and reduced recidivism”, or re-offending. These are important statistics because the women interviewed felt that generally prison work (i.e. mopping floors) did not support reintegration.

A representative from the Puerto Rican co-operative movement was unable to attend in person but their findings were shared with those at the session. In Puerto Rico, a co-operative started in the Guyama Prison in 2003 helped dozens of inmates reduce their prison sentences and transition back into communities. This was no easy feat considering it took three years for the worker co-operative to get off the ground.

Back in 2000, a small group had been making craft items, but they were prohibited from selling them beyond the prison. One inmate began to research how a co-operative might be set up to expand their horizons and sell items outside. It took a change in Puerto Rican law for this to happen. To date fifty prisoners have been released under the co-operative program and only two have returned to prison (one is now back on parole). This is a dramatic result considering the average recidivism rate in Puerto Rico is 50%.

Valerio Pellirossi from Confcooperative in Rome described how Italy has developed social co-operatives that work in prisons and for those released. In Rome, for example, there is a social co-operative of prisoners who operate the prison canteen but also run a catering service outside the prison and a Rome city centre restaurant. As he told the attendees “the co-operators working in prison learned skills that were useful inside and outside of prison”. In fact there are 120 social co-operatives employing some 1,200 prisoners. “This is a way of life,” added Dr Nembhard, “not just skills building.”

In Italy, the success of social co-operatives in the prison system is underscored by the different rates of recidivism. “Eighty percent return to prison in general but for those employed by a social co-operative the recidivism rate drops to less than 10%,” said Mr Pellirossi.

Dr. Beth Weaver, senior lecturer at the School of Social Work and Social Policy of the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, on the same panel, has done research field work in prisons in both Italy and Sweden. She pointed out that “the Swedish social co-operatives have adapted the Italian model but at present only provide paid employment in a community, rather than prison context.”

She said: “There is a commitment to social justice rather than just criminal justice in Italy and Sweden. They recognize that for those in the margins, it is hard to come back.” To assist in their rehabilitation and positive re-entry, the Swedish model includes running bed and breakfasts, doing catering and undertaking agricultural endeavours – or as she put it, “if you can think of it, you can do it”.

Those surveyed understood how valuable the co-op model was for them. One person said: “To be working alongside others is really important and working together makes you feel connected to something.” Another underscored how “the ethics of the co-op is one of inclusion; it is to move forward, to develop active citizenship”.

Dr Weaver added, however, that in setting up a social co-operative there “must be a balance between the economics and the social elements. Even with the best societal intentions, the co-operative must be able to sustain itself economically”.

Social co-operatives are multi-stakeholder co-ops combining worker co-operatives and other various members. For example, it may be made up of social service providers; or it may be formed with prisoners and ex-prisoners or their families or a mix of these different groups. Mr Pellirossi gave the example of drug rehabilitation centres in Italy that may include drug counsellors, addicts, former addicts and their families.

Said Dr Nembhard: “For those in prison-related social co-operatives, it’s not just a job, because you could have plenty of low paying jobs in prison. It’s about learning the co-operative model.”

It is “the connection between family, work and home”, added Dr Weaver.

Dr Nembhard also noted that “there are many benefits from co-ops that extend beyond their market value”, highlighting how they provide leadership development, financial education and literacy, high-level social skills and collective decision-making.

“When it all comes together, the energy of working within the social co-operative cannot be ignored,” added Dr Weaver. “You can feel the solidarity. You cannot come away from it untouched.”

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