An environmental literacy program for prisoners is preparing inmates for a professional life in the green economy.
In the minimum-security wing at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility near Wilsonville, Jaime Armour excitedly reels off her career plans for when she is released in early September.
Determined not to go back to her previous life selling drugs, Armour wants to become an independent contractor for Roots of Success, the work-readiness curriculum that she says “changed my life.”
Armour is a graduate of Roots of Success, which is taught in a variety of settings, including apprenticeship programs, juvenile facilities and government agencies. She is also an instructor, teaching other inmates the curriculum.
Convinced of its benefits for prisoners and employers, Armour wants to persuade other correctional facilities to teach the curriculum, help design a marketing program and talk to employers about how hiring graduates can benefit business.
Roots of Success was created by Dr. Raquel Pinderhughes, a professor of urban studies and planning at San Francisco State University, and an expert on the green economy and green workforce training. The prison version is taught country-wide and is widespread in neighboring Washington state, where it is in nine of the state’s 12 prisons.
In Oregon Roots of Success is only taught in Coffee Creek, a women’s prison and prisoner intake center. The curriculum consists of 10 modules. Inmates learn about environmental problems and solutions. They also learn academic skills, such as scientific inquiry and computer literacy, as well as professional skills, such as putting together a resume and writing a cover letter.
Leadership development, financial literacy and social entrepreneurship round out the syllabus.
Roots of Success founder Raquel Pinderhughes, middle, trains inmates on the syllabus.
Kathleen Fitts, a green team coordinator at Coffee Creek who works in custodial maintenance, got the initiative started at the prison last year. So far four classes have graduated. The prison holds classes, consisting of 12 students, for both minimum-security and medium-security inmates.
The course is designed to be taught peer to peer; inmates learn how to be instructors so they can teach other prisoners.
Roots of Success is popular with inmates, and there is a wait list to participate. Vickie Monfore, a prisoner in the medium-security wing, says the course gave her job ideas for when she is released. She likes the idea of working in a store that upcycles clothes.
“There are hundreds of jobs we could be doing. Even people with no skills can find an occupation or start a business. It teaches you to be an entrepreneur,” says Monfore.
Another inmate, Rebecca Machain, finally got a place after being on the wait list. She likes that the program gives inmates, especially those with long sentences, a pathway to entering the green economy. “It is an opportunity to make community connections,” she says.
A lot of the teaching is hands-on. The prison green team started a “butterfly lab” in partnership with the Oregon Zoo. The lab serves as a kind of incubator for caterpillars. Inmates grow and feed plants to the caterpillars, which grow in the lab until they are ready to become butterflies. At that stage they are sent back to the zoo.
The prison also has a community garden, beehives, and energy- and water-conservation projects.
With graduates nearing release, green team staff are doing outreach to the business community to let them know about the program, ask for textbook sponsorship and encourage employers to hire graduates.
To entice businesses to employ former felons, employers can access tax incentives and funding from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Fitts says it wasn’t easy to get Roots of Success off the ground, which may explain why it has not gained traction at other Oregon prisons. One challenge is expense. Workbooks for each class member cost $50, which totals up to $600 per class. It also costs $500 to train instructors. The prison was lucky to get a $10,000 donation, but this funding is not permanent.
Another struggle is finding prison staff who can dedicate the time to running the course. Fitts is passionate about the program and has dedicated much of her time outside of her regular job to getting it launched and going through instructor training herself. But many prison employees find it hard to get time away from their posts, she says.
The lack of equipment can also be a challenge. Inmates do not have access to computers, so the multimedia parts of the curriculum are taught on a TV screen. A TV that has a thumb drive for the course materials was donated to the prison. Not all jails are so lucky to have this equipment.
Despite the challenges, Roots of Success is clearly inspiring prisoners to pursue jobs in the green economy. Felons will often reoffend because they cannot find jobs after incarceration. This offers a chance for a different path.
Back in the minimum-security wing, Armour’s enthusiasm for the program is infectious. She is impressed with how inmates have come up with green economy business ideas, which gives them a sense of purpose for when they are released.
“This program is empowering people and giving them a desire to be part of the community,” says Armour.
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