Image: Sara Wong

“It’s one of the more vivid memories I have: sitting on my bunk and getting the letter. I wasn’t sure if it would be yes or no, and when it said, ‘You got in,’ I [was] so relieved,” says Sammantha Saucedo. “It was an overwhelming feeling.”

That was 2014, and Saucedo’s bunk was inside Wilsonville’s Coffee Creek Correctional Facility—the state’s only women’s prison, and Saucedo’s home since 2009. The letter was her admission to Mercy Corps’ Lifelong Education for Entrepreneurs (LIFE) program, a 32-week course, the first of its kind in the nation, that trains inmates to become their own bosses.

It was Saucedo’s second attempt at getting into the high-demand program, which regularly has upward of 70 women vying for its 30 spots. Incarcerated right out of high school, Saucedo, then 25, thought the Portland-based nonprofit’s program could help her catch up on the formative adult years she had lost. Plus, she had a plan bubbling to open her own environmentally conscious auto garage. “I wanted to make sure that I had skills so I could get a job or do something with myself when I got out,” she says. “I was already missing so much of my life.”

Coffee Creek holds more than 1,000 women at a time, primarily convicted of property- and drug-related crimes. After serving time, many have trouble finding work. (According to Mercy Corps, recently released female inmates have fewer employment options than women trying to secure jobs during the Great Depression.) Twenty-five percent will end up reconvicted of a felony within three years.

But for grads of the LIFE program, that plummets to 9.7 percent: In its 11-year run, only 14 of its 145 graduates have landed back in prison. Grads have gone on to work in restaurant management, as virtual receptionists, even as Instagram ad designers.

Problem solving is at the core of the holistic curriculum, says Effie Stansbery, Mercy Corps’ Prison and Reentry Services Program Manager. Women tick off traditional course modules—entrepreneurship, business development, mock interviews, and marketing, to name a few—as well as get schooled in healthy eating and mindfulness meditation.

“There’s a lot of confidence building,” says Stansbery, who has worked with the prison population for a decade. “Seventy-five percent of the women in the class right now are parents, so [we] end up talking about how to navigate a business and a personal life simultaneously.”

The program asks inmates to take on a perspective of authority. “Instead of us going into the prison and saying, ‘This is a good template for a résumé,’ we teach it through the lens of when you are a boss putting a job posting out into the world,” Stansbery says. “People walk away thinking, ‘Oh man, I’m the boss.’ And they learn how to write a quality résumé.”

Returning that feeling of power to women who have been stripped of theirs has paid dividends. Those impressively low recidivism numbers led Mercy Corps to double the size of Coffee Creek’s LIFE program in 2019. The nonprofit also just launched its first LIFE course at Columbia River men’s prison in Portland. And it’s in the process of setting up the first LIFE Outside program, which will directly employ recently released people at a coffee cart and medicinal tea brand. All the more opportunity, Stansbery says, to give these folks a real chance at successful reintegration: “I feel like my whole job is just handing people keys to doors.”

Saucedo, who was released from Coffee Creek in August 2015 and now lives in Portland, agrees. Due to funding issues, she never opened that auto garage. That’s a recurring theme for program graduates, as convicted felons are often ineligible for private loans through their own banks.

Instead, she credits LIFE, in part, for her current career as an optician, making and calibrating donated eyeglasses for Oregon Lions Sight & Hearing Foundation in Northwest Portland. “What I took out of [the program] was life skills. Now I know how to plan what to do next instead of just letting things happen,” Saucedo says. “I built my life like I would my business.”

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