The Backpack is Great, but the Story is Even Better

> Posted by Susy Cheston

Prisoner Hope

Kiosk in Costa Rica where Prisoner Hope goods, including backpacks, can be purchased.

My new backpack is fashionably gray, well made, and just a little different from the norm.  What really makes it work for me, though, is the story behind it.
I found the backpack at a beautifully appointed kiosk in an upscale shopping mall in Costa Rica. It was only after being tipped off by the enthusiastic sales clerk that I noticed the subtle “Prisoner Hope” imprint on the flap.  It turned out that the kiosk was full of bags, briefcases, wallets, and the like — all made by Costa Rican prisoners who had been set up in microenterprises.  The 45 prisoners who work through this project send their income home to their families, and have the promise of a livelihood after their release.  This partnership between the private sector and the government of Costa Rica seeks to reduce the recidivism rate and “transform those who are ‘deprived of liberty’ into ‘micro-entrepreneurs.’”  I was sold.
Run a quick search on prisons and microfinance, and you come up short.   You’ll see that in 2008, Kiva promoted loans to clients of FAPE in Guatemala—including women in prison who ran microenterprises.  In 2005, the Bidar District Central Cooperative Bank in India sent members of its microcredit department to train women inmates in the tailoring business.  And in 2009 the government of Algeria had ambitious plans when launching a microenterprise program targeted to reach 4,000 prisoners.
But, as with a couple of intriguing programs in the US for male prisoners — Prison Entrepreneurship Program and Inmates to Entrepreneurs — the few programs I found seem to emphasize skills training more than finance.  And where are the stories of programs that continue in 2011?  I personally was involved with some linkages between Prison Fellowship and Opportunity International back in the day, and, as innovative and mission-driven as those two organizations are, I remember how hard it was to keep anything going beyond the pilot phase. Will the Prisoner Hope project be able to grow beyond 45 clients?  And next time I go to Costa Rica, will it still be around?
At the Prisoner Hope kiosk, I was reminded of the challenge in the Gospel of Matthew to serve “the least of these.”  You know the list: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner.* Depending on your point of view, these are either the very people we want to reach with financial services, or those we simply can’t help.  Are prisoners one of those “can’t be reached by microfinance” categories, or is there some way we can create sustainable, replicable models for them as well?  Are they included in financial inclusion?
Check out “TO” Down to Earth Wear.  And tip me off about any other programs out there flying under the radar.  Let me know if you are aware of ongoing programs that provide microfinance or microenterprise development for prisoners or ex-prisoners.  And if you’ve got a link to any products they make, I’ve got my credit card handy.
*Matthew 25:35-40
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Image credit: “To” Down to Earth Wear
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