Healing Property: Benevolence Farm Leads Women Out of Prison And Back to The Land

May 14, 2019

A nonprofit in Alamance County is celebrating the second anniversary of its working farm. Benevolence Farm provides housing and jobs for North Carolina women as they leave prison.

A nonprofit in Alamance County is celebrating the second anniversary of its working farm. Benevolence Farm provides housing and jobs for North Carolina women as they leave prison.

Deb relishes her time in the greenhouse. It's a sanctuary where she nurtures tomatoes and lettuce, blooming calendula and anise hyssop. Earthy, floral scents swirl under the canopy, but Deb says the smells are beside the point.

"We use 'em in our body care products. There's healing properties in all the... That's why I don't pay attention to the smell of the flower because it's got healing properties."

Deb is one of the women living and working on Benevolence Farm in Graham. She didn't want to share her last name or the offense for which she was incarcerated, but she'd been in jail for the past 27-and-a-half-years.

The state Department of Public Safety says women make up a small, but growing portion of North Carolina's prison population. Nearly 4,000 women are released every year, and they need to figure out what to do next, with a record. Some organizations offer services to ease the reentry to society, but DPS records show about 10 percent of women end up back behind bars within two years.

LaShauna Austria is the Executive Director of Benevolence Farm. She says women are often overlooked by conventional reentry programs, which don't usually provide housing and jobs.
 
"When folks come out of prison, they need housing and employment. With nowhere to live and no money in your pocket, you're going back," Austria explains. "They need money! And so with a program that offers housing and employment, over time, we're gonna see recidivism rates go down because we have you. You're part of the community. We want you to be successful and we're gonna help you do it."

Unlike some other reentry programs, Austria says Benevolence Farm doesn't ban people with violent crimes on their records. A good fit for farm life is a good fit.

Deb is a resident at Benevolence Farm. She manages the greenhouse in Graham, N.C. on Thursday, April 18, 2018.
Credit Ben McKeown / WUNC

The ranch house in Graham can provide room and board for up to 6 women, and guarantee 24 hours of work per week at a living wage. Residents work on the farm and use the flowers and herbs they grow to make lotions, salves, candles and aromatherapy products. They also sell the produce they grow at farmers markets.
 
"We believe in  the healing aspect of farming and being connected to the land. Being able to just walk outside and see the birds and the animals, we really think it's really a therapeutic way of offering second chances to really be grounded to think about mental health and well being and all that comes through being connected to the land."

After serving more than a quarter century, greenhouse manager Deb says she's got a lot of healing to do.

"People need to know that we are people. We made mistakes, or we made bad choices. But also that we need support. There are thousands of women still in the system, most of which will eventually get out, and they need some place to go. And this is the only place in North Carolina like this. It's the only one in North Carolina that do not discriminate against crime."

She's also starting over in the world, at 62 years old. Deb had to learn to use a smart phone after her December release. She doesn't have a drivers license yet. She's still getting used to making decisions about her day. She says the staff at Benevolence Farm has been supportive.

"They help me with personal goals, such as health and wellbeing, mental and emotional goals. They make sure I get to appointments that I have to get to.

They've encouraged her to get out of the house and introduce her to people her own age. Celebrated with her when she completed a certificate program at Duke Divinity School.

"They helped me find a church that would accept me for me, and not.... 'Oh, there goes the lady that did so much time in prison.'"

Residents at Benevolence farms are welcome to stay for up to two years. Deb has committed to staying the whole stretch before setting up a garden sanctuary of her own.

Workers at Benevolence Farm start flowers, herbs and produce from seeds in their greenhouse. They also raise crops on an acre of the 13-acre property.
Credit Ben McKeown / WUNC