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Benevolence Farm: connecting female ex-convicts with the land

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Lynn Burke hasn't been in prison for nearly 24 years. But she remembers what it felt like to be locked up: "It was the closest thing to being dead."

Since her release on a forgery and false pretense conviction, Burke, now a federal immigration attorney, has advocated for women to re-enter society after serving their prison terms. She and several other ex-convicts serve on the advisory council for Benevolence Farm, a project in Alamance County to provide a safe, supportive transition for former women prisoners.

One in five incarcerated women is a mother and the primary caregiver for her children, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In 2011, the ACLU found that at least 85 percent of women in prison reported being a victim of domestic violence or sexual abuse.

Many are convicted as accomplices to crimes committed by men. Others are convicted for crimes committed in self-defense. The majority, Burke says, are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Most lose hope.

"The women don't go in there and get fixed," Burke says. (She can practice immigration law in North Carolina because she is licensed in another state. She passed the bar exam here, but the North Carolina State Bar refused to grant her a license.) "They get worse."

Tanya Jisa, a social worker and sustainable agriculture advocate, created the Benevolence Farm project in 2006. The following year, she pitched the idea to vendors during her weekly shopping visit to the Carrboro Farmers Market.

Jisa wants the project to provide a way for the women to "take back the power" lost while being in the prison system.

"They need a second chance, but they're going to need a lot of support and healing," she says. "That connection with the earth, growing food in a safe and nonchaotic place. It's hopefully a sense of accomplishment."

The farm will employ 12 women at a time to grow produce on the land . It will provide housing, career development courses and therapy programs.

Burke says she hopes Benevolence Farm will be a "place to heal," free from distractions and set in a quiet, thoughtful space. "Chaos is something that a lot of us [in prison] are used to, and when the chaos is gone, we think something is wrong."

Burke's transition from prison was difficult because her home life didn't improve. She first landed in a Tennessee jail after writing stolen checks to buy her children food. Charged with forgery and false pretense, she was released after six months and spent another six years on probation.

Burke moved to North Carolina, her home, and enrolled part-time at N.C. State to study social work. Meanwhile she cared for her children alone in public housing. When caught a second time, she was convicted of the same charges, plus shoplifting. The judge sentenced her to 10 years, but after a record of good behavior and daily visits with a therapist, she was released after 22 months.

Your self-esteem is really bad when you get out," Burke says. "There's a twinge in your gut saying, 'I'm still not worthy.' The only way to survive [in prison] is to shut your emotions off. You come home and you're dead inside."

In 2012, according to Department of Public Safety statistics, 2,611 women were released from North Carolina prisons. According to Jisa, 40 percent of women released in January 2013 had "questionable home plans"—no stable, definite place to go upon release.

John and Cindy Soehner of Eco Farm, Elise Margoles of Elysian Fields Farms, Alex and Betsy Hitt of Peregrine Farm and Mike Perry and Cathy Jones of Perry-winkle Farm all support the project, which has secured 11 acres in Alamance County thanks to a donation of land by Alabama resident Felix Drennan.

A fundraiser held earlier this month at the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw raised more than $10,000 for the farm, money that will be matched by the Snyder Family Fund.

Four women stood on an empty stage and addressed a crowd of artists, farmers, chefs, local business owners and community members. Darla Locklear, her tall, thin frame hidden under a heavy coat, walked up to the microphone and told them why she was in prison for 105 days. She killed her abuser of eight years.

Locklear grew up in Lumberton watching her father, a pastor, beat her mother. "I thought that meant he loved her. Isn't that crazy?" Locklear said.

Both of her parents died by the time she was 12. (Locklear learned recently that her mother killed her father in self-defense.) She went into foster care, where she says she was molested and abused. At 13, she met a man 10 years her senior. His wealthy family took her in. They bought the couple a house, and they were married within a year.

"He started beating me two weeks after I met him, and I thought he loved me. He would knock me unconscious, rub me down a barbwire fence, beat me with sticks, fishing poles, beat my head against the fireplace, beat me with a table," she recalls. "This was all I knew. When I went to prison I was angry. I thought, I've been in prison for eight years. And they're gonna put me in prison for defending my life and my children?"

Locklear has found jobs, only to be fired, after a background check. She has struggled to provide for her family. She slipped into depression and drug use shortly after release, before finally realizing she could lose everything—including her kids. She says a program like Benevolence Farm would give hope and opportunity to women upon their release.

For 20 years, Locklear and her lawyer have been fighting for a pardon from the governor. The conviction wouldn't be expunged, but it would be explained. She moved with her children close to the Virginia border to work in that state, where it's easier to find a job.

"As I was sitting in prison," Locklear says, "I realized I don't really know a heck of a lot about what to do with myself. I don't know where to go. I was nothing to nobody. Those women in prison need an opportunity. They need hope. They need this."

This article appeared in print with the headline "New starts."

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