By Kristina Hall
Outside of Wilsonville, Oregon sits the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. Inside of this correctional facility is a very special prison education program for women inmates called LIFE (Lifelong Information for Entrepreneurs). The program has been developed to build business and pro-social skills for incarcerated women.
The core of the LIFE program addresses self-employment and micro enterprise development for women after they are released from the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. Inmate participants are taught skills that can be used in business and self-employment. LIFE helps their students to create productive lives after release and to establish self-sufficiency and economic stability for themselves and their families.
LIFE is the mastermind and lifeblood of Mercury Corps Northwest (MCNW). MCNW is an organization dedicated to helping low-income incarcerated women learn vital business skills that are essential for managing and building small businesses. Inmates must be within 18-24 months of release to be able to build a solid working relationship leading to curriculum completion and release. The education program focuses on business planning, financial literacy, soft skills (conflict resolution, goal setting, time management), and planning for transition from prison to open society.
Funding for the LIFE program is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with a four year grant to MCNW that began in 2010. Other private funding comes from the Portland Community College, Kaiser Permanente Community Fund, and the State of Oregon Department of Corrections.
The teaching and counseling staff is made up of community experts, volunteers, and experienced students. After release, LIFE graduates are able to stay connected with these instructors to help with the reentry process.
MCNW also provides a matched savings program tailored to State of Oregon inmates. Students must demonstrate consistent attendance in the LIFE program, complete all homework, create and execute a savings plan based on their current earnings and needs, and complete both a transition plan and business plan. If the student fulfills all of these requirements, they are eligible for a $500 grant for transition needs after release.
The LIFE program at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility has seen wonderful post-release business skills amongst the former women inmates and a huge reduction in recidivism, too.