GRAHAM, NC — After spending more than a year in prison, Eden Gustavsen said she couldn’t remember who she was.
“I didn’t have anybody telling me where to go, what to do. I got to pick out my own clothes. I didn’t feel comfortable in regular clothes anymore,” Gustavsen said. “It can be a shock to the system because you’re stripped of your identity.”
In 2015, Gustavsen was placed on probation after being charged with trying to manufacture methamphetamine.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, probation is often used as an alternative to incarceration. However, due to the fees and stipulations that come with it, many women —like Gustavsen— end up in prison as a result of failing to adhere to these guidelines.
Gustavsen said her struggles with addiction made following her probation guidelines nearly impossible.
“I was an addict. And I couldn't really follow that,” Gustavsen said.
According to her, the substance abuse rehabilitation programs the state placed her in were too short and thus didn’t help her.
“Long term abstinence from drugs is really key because it takes years for the cravings and all that, for you to reset your mind,” she said.
Because of this, even after going through various drug rehabilitation programs, Gustavsen ended up in a prison in Asheville, North Carolina.
She became one of the more than 200,000 women in U.S. prisons, a growing population nationally. Women’s incarceration rates have grown twice as fast as men’s in past decades. Non-violent offenses like drug and property offenses, make up more than half of the crimes for which women are incarcerated in the United States.
"When people get out of prison it's overwhelming, and it can be a shock to the system. Because you're stripped of your identity, everything you don't really remember who you are."
After spending roughly 19 months in prison, Gustavsen joined the nearly 80,000 women released from prison each year. Before her release, she met with her case manager to review her housing options after leaving prison.
Gustavsen researched resources across North Carolina dedicated to re-entry efforts for women leaving prison and found Benevolence Farm.
“Immediately, I was like, this is where I’ve got to go,” Gustavsen said. “It was just such a wonderful program. There were no other programs like that.
Located in Graham, North Carolina, Benevolence Farm is a transitional living program for formerly incarcerated women. Up to six women live in the residence while working on the property through farming and the production and sale of body care products.
After noticing the rising rate of incarcerated women in the early 2000s, founder Tanya Jisa decided she wanted to create a place for women to live and work after exiting the criminal justice system.
Nearly four years after welcoming its first resident in 2016, Interim Executive Director Kristen Powers is working to continue the mission of helping formerly incarcerated women re-enter society.
In order to be accepted into Benevolence Farm, Gustavsen submitted letters of recommendation from her rehabilitation program leader and her boss while in prison. She also filled out an extensive application followed by phone and in-person interviews in addition to medical and mental health evaluations.
“It was a very intensive process and nerve-wracking,” Gustavsen said.
After being accepted into the program, Gustavsen’s parents picked her up from prison and drove her to the farm, where residents and staff members greeted her with balloons, signs and a meal she had requested.
Gustavsen spent the following two weeks getting accustomed to life after prison.
“They're really aware that when people get out of prison it’s overwhelming. Incarceration is extremely traumatic,” she said.
After getting accustomed to life outside of prison, Gustavsen began working on the farm. For her, working outdoors allowed her to feel more grounded and connected.
“It just helped me clear my mind and I would get in the zone,” Gustavsen said. "I pictured, in my head, those weeds were negative thoughts in my mind, and I was just pulling them out and clearing my mind.”
According to Powers, the residents work around three days a week. The majority of this work is related to Benevolence Farm’s body care product line.
Depending on the season, residents harvest crops that are later used to create body care products including soaps, oils and creams that are sold online and at markets.
“There's a lot of work on the farm, it's never-ending,” Gustavsen said. “Which is key, and for people who have addictions, it's good to stay focused on something.”
In addition to providing housing and employment to residents, Powers said Benevolence Farm also connects the women to resources across the state.
“We often act as a liaison to services. We don't try to reinvent the wheel at all. If there's something in the community they can take advantage of we’re the connector to that,” Powers said. “There's a lot of different factors that we try to support them on.”
These include mental health and substance abuse services, employment and housing support as well as help for the women to get their licenses and high school diplomas.
Residents at Benevolence Farm are encouraged to set goals they want to achieve during their time on the farm. Staff members connect the women to local resources to help them achieve these.
In addition to external support, Benevolence Farm’s staff members and the other residents work to encourage each other to reach their goals.
“If you just, set your mind to it and you have good people backing you up and supporting you, rooting for you, they kind of keep you on track,” Gustavsen said.
However, Powers said not all residents accomplish their goals immediately. These setbacks force staff members, like Powers, to remember their responsibility and role in the residents’ re-acclamation into society.
“There is a very difficult line to walk between, being super invested in every resident, because, like all of us, people mess up. And sometimes it really hurts when someone messes up that you really love and care about,” Powers said.
According to a report from the National Institute of Justice Journal, women formerly in the justice system need significantly more resources than men.
“The demand on resources has been extreme. … People are often put on waiting lists for any kind of programming, whether that's mental health treatment, or educational programming, vocational training,” Elon University Associate Professor of sociology Rena Zito said.
This demand for resources is no stranger to Powers. Because Benevolence Farm can only provide services to six women at a time, not everyone who applies is given the opportunity to work at the farm.
“There's a very high demand for what we do, we have to turn down a lot of women. This is obviously a minuscule fraction of the need out there.”
In addition to a lack of space, funding is another issue for Benevolence Farm. The organization does not receive state or federal funds but rather makes its money through individual donors and foundations.
According to Powers, the organization spends between $10,000 to $18,000 monthly depending on the season. This figure includes funding the farm’s operations and paying the three staff members.
In addition, residents are also compensated for their work on the farm. The organization deducts rent and electricity costs from the resident’s paychecks in order to help establish a record of paying utility bills.
Benevolence Farm also encourages financial savings by deducting an additional amount and placing it into a savings account available to residents following the program.
However, Powers says fundraising for a project like Benevolence Farm can be challenging.
“It is such a stigmatized population, it's not as glamorous for fundraising as children are or puppies. It can be hard to fundraise when people think your group of people is not as deserving as someone else,” Powers said. “More and more people are realizing how difficult reentry from prison is and are realizing that they need to be more supportive and that it is a community safety approach.”
Not getting connected to the right help can lead women back to prison. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, around 35% of women released from prison are re-incarcerated within one year.
This is often a result of the unemployment and homelessness that follows after prison. The Prison Policy Institute reports that formerly incarcerated people are 10 times more likely to be homeless and suffer from a 27% unemployment rate.
Benevolence Farm’s rate of re-incarceration, also known as recidivism, is significantly lower than the national average. Out of the 19 women to have participated in the program, one returned to prison due to an outstanding warrant and another woman died from a drug overdose.
“I struggled a lot with finding a job as a felon,” Gustavsen said. “I also had a lot of trouble finding someone who would accept me as a felon for an apartment or a house to rent.”
However, during her time at Benevolence Farm, Gustavsen was able to get her driver’s license, graduate from high school, secure a job outside of the farm and move into her own home. All of which were goals she set at the beginning of her time in the program.
"It's unbelievable to see where I came from, you know, on drugs on the street. Now I have my own apartment that I've been paying my own bills and working and just living in life. It's really great."
“I really love how we have women who are succeeding in many different ways, both personally and also at a larger level and systemic level as well.”
Gustavsen said she attributes much of her success to the support system she built at Benevolence Farm.
“It's unbelievable to see where I came from, you know, on drugs on the street. Now I have my own apartment that I've been paying my own bills and working and just living in life. It's really great,” Gustavsen said.
Gustavsen has been working at the Saxapahaw General Store in Saxapahaw, North Carolina and was recently promoted to a manager position.
“I had a team who was behind me and rooting for me. That means more to me than anything," Gustavsen said.