Women in prison prepare for release with LIFE entrepreneurship program

Mercy Corps Northwest started the Lifelong Education for Entrepreneurs program back in 2007 to help women like Vanessa, Myriah and Amy find purpose while navigating life post-prison release. 

The program is competitive – of the approximately 80 women who apply for the program each term, only 25 are admitted. 

The goal of the LIFE program is simple. At the end of the 32 weeks, each woman has created her own small business plan, considering real-life challenges and financial hurdles she could face as a budding entrepreneur.  

The group meets each Wednesday morning for several hours in a classroom inside Coffee Creek Correctional Faculty. Each woman carries a heavy binder filled with weekly reading and homework assignments. Each binder is decorated by the owner with family photos, doodles and ornate drawings of their names. 

But before they begin the day’s lesson, the group goes through emotional regulation, a centering meditation to help them feel more present in an environment that is anything but quiet. 

“It’s like you live in a dorm with 150 women, even at night when someone is sleeping, it’s loud. It’s actually kind of grounding to be in class,” Amy said, reflecting on the practice. 

Amy, Myriah and 22 other women close their eyes, as Vanessa reads the weekly meditation, which lasts about two to three minutes. 

“Pay attention to how you’re feeling at this moment,” Vanessa said. “Imagine your body releasing with each exhale.” 

Amy, whose short stature carries quite a punch, laughs as she admits she never saw herself meditating.

“The first time, I thought that was really dumb. You know, someone talking in monotone,” she said. “But you kind of get into it after doing it for a while. It helps you breathe, be in the moment and let go.” 

The group often plays host to female business leaders from the community who provide career advice or marketing lessons during weekly lectures. 

They walk away with valuable building blocks like a resume, cover letter and the skills to create a basic budget and savings plan. 

Beyond its small business goals, the class serves as a de facto stabilizer for these women, many of whom can get lost in the everyday fray of being in prison. It’s easy to keep track of time when every day is the same. 

Myriah said the LIFE class gave her a refreshing sense of normalcy after more than three years behind bars. 

“It takes me out of where I’m at, and it’s a good reminder this place is temporary,” Myriah said. “I’m almost done. And when I am done, I can go back to school, be in classroom settings and not be alienated because I was absent for five years.” 

Vanessa’s small business idea was to create a nonprofit advocacy program for the justice-involved 

Myriah wanted to create a camp for kids to experience nature and live off the land, much like she did while growing up in Alaska.  

Amy learned how to crochet through another program in Coffee Creek and wants to own a small business creating blankets for newborns. 

As detailed as their transition plans are for their businesses, the scary reality of walking out of prison and trying to rebuild a life from scratch is inescapable. 

At the bare minimum, they’re leaving prison a little more prepared for the real world, with a resume, a cover letter and a detailed transition plan – tangible skills they wouldn’t have had without LIFE. 

Amy admitted she’s anxious about being released. After all, she and hundreds of other women here have depended on the system’s strict scheduling for years. 

“I think this class gave me an opportunity of what it’ll first look like when I get out,” Amy said. “Thinking down to if I’ll need medication the first 30 days I’m out, a cell phone, exercise … just being able to make a plan and sticking with it.” 

Above all else, women who come into prison with very little and confidence can come out of the LIFE program an elevated sense of self-worth, according to Bustamante. 

“It’s hard for them to shift their minds from, ‘I’m a person who’s at the whim of the experience I’m having,’ versus, ‘I’m a person who will take charge of my life in a legal way,’” Bustamante said. “The implications of the LIFE course are staggering. If we’re thinking of the social situations, ‘All of a sudden, I’m not just a felon, I’m someone with a skillset.’ You have a sense of ownership if you so choose. Knowledge is power.”