LEAP Stops Prison Recidivism in its Tracks

Mentoring and entrepreneurship give female inmates a new lease on life.

While the United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, it is home to 25% of the world’s prison population. For most of America’s inmates, prison actually does becomes a kind of home, one they will return to again and again. According to a 2014 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, within three years of release two-thirds of all former inmates are rearrested; within five years that figure is reported to be as high as 75%.

And recently released women face unique obstacles when reentering society. Many had been homeless or victims of domestic abuse before incarceration. Most leave prison with only the clothes on their backs. Sadly, they can’t even find refuge in a government subsidized homeless shelter; their time behind bars disqualifies them from HUD’s definition of homelessness. Officially, prison was their home.

The Leap to Freedom

“There’s more to life than just returning to prison, and everyone deserves to thrive and lead a life of meaning,” says Mahlia Lindquist, Executive Director of Ladies Empowerment and Action Program (LEAP). “The purpose of our program is to provide skills, yes, but more importantly LEAP provides community and a lifelong relationship with somebody who actually cares. We hear a lot about second chances, but for most of our women, this is about first chances. For the first time in their life they’re being given an opportunity to actually succeed.”

Indeed, when a graduate of the LEAP program walks out of Homestead Correctional Institution, she is proudly welcomed at the prison gate by her program mentor and presented with the essentials necessary to make a new start: transportation, clothing, toiletries, a cell phone, and employment and housing resources. Over her last 8 months in prison, she will have worked with her mentor to complete 300 program hours acquiring essential life skills to meet the challenges of the outside world and build a new life. This includes 10 weeks of business classes with a professor from Barry University’s Entrepreneurial Institute, during which she is guided to develop and write her own business plan. As a result, graduates of the LEAP program have a recidivism rate of only 5%–less than one-tenth that of the national average.

The Power to Change, the Power to Make Money, the Power to Do Good.

Tarshea Sanderson is one of LEAP’s proudest success stories. After graduating from the in-prison program and her release from Homestead, Tarshea was mentored by Mahlia Lindquist, who found her temporary housing and introduced her to the Center for Social Change (C4SC). Tarshea began volunteering with the center’s member organizations to gain valuable experience and boost her hiring profile, and worked with a non-profit that provides job training for ex-offenders. Her perseverance, optimism and charismatic spirit impressed everyone and soon LEAP hired her as its Assistant Director of Community Engagement.

One of her first assignments was supporting the establishment of Sacred House, a housing partnership between LEAP and the CS4C. When opened, Sacred House provided permanent housing and community support for LEAP graduates during their crucial initial months of freedom. Tarshea moved in and soon became the home’s unofficial godmother, embracing her fellow residents and helping them navigate their new world. C4SC took note, and hired her full time as Sacred House’s Director, guiding new residents in their 20 hours of volunteer work a week, and counseling them on making connections among the its many non-profits.

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“I tell them that nothing comes easy, and if you want something you must do whatever it takes to make your dreams a reality,” Tarshea says. “In April of 2017, I finally opened my own business. I used the skills I learned in LEAP to launch my full-service home and office cleaning company.”

LEAP recently celebrated a launch of its own, opening a high-end thrift store that provides employment opportunities for its graduates, and economic support for its mission.

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