How good is your imagination? Can you imagine a community in which our carceral system uses compassionate and restorative modes of healing? You may ask yourself: how a punitive system could be healing and regenerative? This is an astute question, because compared to other states, Vermont’s communities have far to go to make their carceral systems more rehabilitative. Vermont could choose to work in harmony with the substantive data supporting restorative justice programs to achieve long term results. Why aren’t we doing more of this? We can keep a repressive penal system or we can choose to build a humane and compassionate justice system. What kind of community do you envision? At Step Out, we believe in the potential of women who’ve served their time. There is significant evidence that, while these individuals are in the shelter of prison, they greatly benefit from a focus on mental and physical health and job training. Money management programs in the long term result in creating more employment opportunities for our underserved. Vermont’s communities could choose to engage in and advocate for investments in adults from disadvantaged Backgrounds.
Returning home from a microenterprise endeavor with women in South America, Executive Director Cheryl Diersch, put her finger on the pulse of what was happening for Vermont women living in poverty. She discovered that the rates of children entering the foster care system went up 75 % in just one year. Shocked to discover this finding was due to incarceration of mothers and/or a parent, Cheryl decided to see how she could support local microfinance programs in Vermont. She already knew the personal freedom to be found in running one’s own business, paired with the microfinance work in Ecuador, with what she knew of the success rates -- why wasn't it available in our own backyard? After making inquiries here in Vermont she found a match in Mercy Corps NorthWest’s LIFE Program. Named, Lifelong Information for Entrepreneurs, and the first graduating class of LIFE out of Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Oregon.
Step Out, with LIFE, offers the double power of microfinance principles and transformative learning. Microfinance ideals hinge on the notion that encouraging the ideas of entrepreneurs and giving financial support to those without collateral, they can obtain the tools to succeed. Jack Mezirow’s transformative learning theory is a mode of learning for adults that aids in fundamental perception changes. It helps learners to obtain new information, question past ideas and understanding, and shift their worldview as they learn new things and engage in critical reflection. This ability to question all ideas thought to be known before and to make room for more information helps establish autonomous thinking.
The greatest LIFE outcome benefits the women’s thinking and attitudes in evolving from passivity and victimhood to a place of active entrepreneurial strategizing for a better future. Research proves that the more money one makes the less deviant the behavior.
Would you like to envision compassion and education in our correctional facilities? Citizens of Vermont have the power in their votes, as classroom volunteers and as donors to educate our incarcerated populace for the attitudes, job skills, health training, and life skills necessary to embed themselves into their communities. The LIFE program provides the tools, the pathway to interface with employers, and mentors that support the women’s transition plans and get them dreaming of purposeful work. We’re leveling the playing field to be more equitable and innovative.