Breaking Barriers & Building Cooperatives in a Massachusetts Jail

Students from a class on cooperatives held at the Franklin County House of Corrections (FCHC), a jail in Greenfield, Massachusetts, recently showcased their creative visions for cooperative businesses in a graduation ceremony for the course.

A board illustrating students' final cooperative business plans

A board illustrating students’ final cooperative business plans

The greatest service we provide to this class is the framework for students from inside and outside the jail to come together and flourish, says Andrew Stachiw, the TESA Collective worker-owner who leads the class. The students get so much from learning about and practicing cooperation. If the coops they develop are cool, that’s the cherry on top.

And the coop ideas were very cool. Over the course’s 8 weeks, 12 students (6 who are incarcerated and 6 who are not) developed ideas for cooperatives that would grow food on the farmland on which the jail sits, deliver food to the local community, cultivate livestock, and more. The idea is that people who are incarcerated learn farming trades, get on a worker-owner track, and have the option to become a worker-owner once they are released, all while earning credits toward a degree at the local community college.

2016 was Andrew’s third year of teaching the class “Creating Farm and Food Cooperatives” at FCHC, in partnership with Greenfield Community College. The class is organized within the framework of the Inside-Out model, an approach to transformative higher education that brings together students incarcerated in prisons with students from outside prison to learn together. In this particular course, students practice cooperation through the act of developing their own farm or food focused coop.

A map of the farm-focused coop developed by students in a class at the Franklin County jail in Massachusetts

A map of the farm-focused coop developed by students in a class at the Franklin County jail in Massachusetts

Andrew coordinates and leads the course, providing mentorship and training in cooperative skills, decision-making, governance, and management. Worker owners from Open Bookkeeping, Equal Exchange, and Real Pickles came to the class to teach budgeting, financial skills, and other critical steps to establishing a successful coop.

While the goal of the class is for students to develop preliminary business plans, the vision goes further. The most important part is that inside and outside students come together and cooperate, says Andrew. There is so much social stigma of inside students. Most outside students have never been in a prison, or even been in a space like this where you’re not seeing incarcerated folks as the other but as peers.

Andrew notes that he’s seen many students overcome stigmas and stereotypes, be they of others in the class or of themselves. He estimates that over half of inside students have never taken a college class. Participating in this course offers them an opportunity to build confidence and break through social myths about who belongs in college.

Andrew’s work doesn’t end at the graduation ceremony. Each week, he facilitates a “think tank” at the jail, a voluntary 2-hour-long group meeting where participants read books, organize art shows, create a poetry zine, and collaborate to build mutual political understanding. Read more about TESA’s work with the Inside Out model here.

To learn more about the Inside Out model, access resources at the website of the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program.

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