In 2012 more than 2600 women were released from North Carolina Division of Public Safety prisons. Reentry services for these women are sorely lacking. Many have no choice but to return to the communities they left and situations that facilitated their incarceration. Often, these communities lack services to address the problems that formerly incarcerated women have to deal with such as substance abuse, mental illness, lack of job skills, and lack of access to the legal system to solve complex issues such as child custody cases. One study, “A Higher Hurdle: Barriers to Employment for Incarcerated Women,” found that “a criminal record has a negative impact on employment opportunities of women.” Formerly incarcerated women are significantly less likely than non-formerly incarcerated women to receive a positive response (5.5% vs. 8.0%, respectively) from potential employers and face a number of mental, financial, and physical barriers to seeking and retaining employment. This lack of services contributes to a high rate of recidivism: approximately 60% of women who are released are rearrested. Recent surveys of parole officers show that more of them give high priority to the law enforcement function of parole, rather than its service or rehabilitation function.
The majority of re-entry programs that currently exist in our state target men and do not offer the full range of support and services necessary for successful transition back to our communities. Experts are finding that traditional methods for rehabilitating a historically male-dominated prison population need to be reevaluated to fit the needs of female inmates, who respond differently to treatment than their male counterparts and face different challenges.
Many formerly incarcerated women lack a high school degree and may have substance abuse or other chronic health problems such as HIV, Aids, tuberculosis, or mental health issues that haven’t been adequately addressed during incarceration. Most significantly, a majority of women coming out of prison have no home to return to or, if they do, those homes are located in troubled communities where individuals fall right back into the activities that landed them in prison in the first place. Transitional housing capacity is lacking in most states, including North Carolina. These women often are unmarried and were receiving welfare before their incarceration. Recent studies have shown that the majority of inmates are being released without vocational and educational preparation. Following release from prison, inmates are moved directly from a very controlled environment to a low level of supervision or complete freedom that often results in heightened stress before and during re-entry. Finally, women released from prison have very limited access to treatment for substance abuse and health problems that exacerbate the difficulty of finding employment and housing and interfere with family reunification.
Benevolence tells the story of the farm’s development and follows the journey of the first group of residents as they embark on twelve months of living and working together in community. The film also tracks the changing seasonal landscape during fall, winter and spring as the women learn to farm, harvest, pack and sell their produce, put the land to rest for the winter and prepare for new growth in the spring. We cannot predict what will happen along the women’s journey and therefore are engaging in an open filming approach rather than a strong directorial hand bent on creating drama. There is enough inherent drama that will unfold in the situation itself — bringing individuals who have never met together to live and work in a tight-knit group. Will these women find camaraderie with one another? Will they collaborate, learn from each other’s successes and failures, share their challenges openly and seek support and strength from the group? Or will the strain of such a big life shift from prison to farm result in programmatic failure as individuals drop out and conflicts arise between remaining participants? Our filming strategy will be to pay attention to the small details of the women’s daily lives on the Farm, to watch for little emotional moments and subtle signs of personal and character development. This narrative strand will focus intimately on the women, quietly recording their day-to-day interactions with each other and the staff. Through intimate verite filming, we follow these women on their difficult journey to renewed independence, confidence and self-worth as they learn employment and relationship skills and relearn what it means to live life on the outside.