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Project 180: Bringing Together Ex-Offenders and Organic Farming

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Last fiscal year, 37,509 inmates were released from Florida state prisons; within the next three years, as many as half of them will return. So says Judge Lee E. Haworth, Chief Judge of Florida's Twelfth Circuit. He is hardly surprised by this grim statistic: "When an inmate is released with no job, no housing, no community supports -- there are few choices but to return to a life of crime."

He may not be surprised, but Judge Haworth is hardly resigned. He is an enthusiastic supporter of Project 180, a nonprofit organization currently raising funds to start a prisoner reentry program in Sarasota, FL. Project 180 hopes to "provide education, marketable job skills training, a 24/7 clean-and-sober living environment, an emphasis on community involvement and volunteerism, and a slow reintegration into the community. Project 180 seeks to build community, not more prisons."

Founder Barbara Richards is working around the clock to get the funding necessary to launch the program. She works at night as a restaurant manager to support herself but spends her days learning the intricacies of organic farming, reaching out to potential donors and nurturing her dream of Project 180. A native of California, Richards' life took a turn when she heard a statistic that for every one black man in college, five are in prison. "I was driving and literally had to pull over to the side of the road when I heard that," she recalls. "In a country where we say everyone has an equal chance at success, how could that be possible?"

Shortly thereafter, Barbara Richards was a volunteer coordinator of a men's support group in the felony wing at a county jail. "I was so scared," she admits. "I thought 'I can't do this.' These guys were so intense but so welcoming of anyone willing to help." She eventually moved to Florida to get a graduate degree and conceived the idea for Project 180. She's assembled a powerful group of believers -- including the Office of the Public Defender of the Twelfth Judicial Circuit and the Florida State University College of Criminology & Criminal Justice Center for Criminology and Public Policy Research.

As former offenders leave prison, they will be offered the opportunity to spend two years at Project 180 once it is up and running. The holistic program will address many of the causes of recidivism -- from homelessness to the lack of marketable job skills to substance abuse. "The program will allow a person to re-evaluate his life, to recover from his mistakes," says Richards. "It will allow him to transition into the community." All applicants will be carefully screened, and sex offenders and those convicted of crimes against children will not be accepted. Job skills training will occur on the program's organic farm. Residents will utilize a highly sustainable, low-water usage, low technology, high yield farming method to grow orchard fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs. They will have the opportunity to recover from prison life and gain skills in farming, small business management and construction.

Fred is an ex-offender who has avoided returning to prison after serving almost six years for a drug conviction 26 years ago. The former Marine attributes part of his success to the fact that he was able to join a family business upon his release, but has no illusions about the difficulty of re-entry to community life after prison. "Many of the guys getting out have little or no hope. So many programs have been eliminated that helped them get an education or job skills," he says. Fred is currently volunteering with Project 180 and hopes to help teach building skills once it gets off the ground.

In a rough economy, it can be challenging to see the point of investing in programs that would turn around the lives of people who have committed crimes. And yet, says Judge Haworth, Project 180 would benefit many citizens of the Sarasota area. "The question is whether it makes any logical sense that people released from prison will suddenly be law-abiding citizens," he says. "A large part of the increase in crime can be attributed to the release of prisoners."

As Richards seeks funds from individuals and donors, she is also excited to be part of the Pepsi Refresh Project which asks people to vote for great ideas that deserve funding. Project 180 is currently in contention to be awarded a $50,000 prize. Still, whether or not Pepsi awards the money to Project 180, Barbara Richards is nurturing her dream of a safe, results-oriented place for former offenders to go when they have finished serving their time. She is convinced that everyone will benefit from the program, and, as she says, "It is an uphill battle for former offenders to become successful citizens. Project 180 can make it easier."