Interview with the Compost Co-op
Abolitionism does not solely entail the abolishment of the prison system, it requires a shift in our communities where the systems put in place are mutually supportive. As we re-envision a society that honors the wellbeing of all and alternative systems of care, cooperatives will be integral. The Compost Cooperative is a worker-owned food scraps pickup service that empowers those who have been incarcerated by providing fulfilling work that allows for agency and economic independence.
The co-op developed out of the Think Tank, which consisted of a group of inmates at the Franklin County jail in Greenfield, Massachusetts, educators, and community members that came together to discuss life inside and what led to their incarceration or reincarceration. One of the main issues that came up was the difficulty in staying out once you have been in. Upon release, the requirements of providing an address to be released to, showing up to parole or probation meetings, obtaining and keeping a job, can all pose a threat to maintaining freedom. “One of the key issues of staying out once you have been in is the lack of access to meaningful living wage work.” says Trenda Loftin, a worker-owner at the cooperative.
Besides having a charge on their record, “the folks in jail often experience poverty or come from low income backgrounds, they have to navigate racism, classism, mental health issues, and other disabilities that all contribute to lack of inclusion in a meaningful workforce” says Trenda. Filling the void in access to meaningful living wage work was one of the driving forces for developing the cooperative. They decided to create a service where there is a need, “we understand the issues of climate change and we identified composting as one of the things we can do for our community, environmental change, and teaching folks to divert food scraps from the waste system” says Trenda. They partnered with Andrew Stachiw, a cooperative expert in the area, to develop the business plan for the compost cooperative within the jail itself.
An overarching question posed by Trenda in the work of abolitionism, is “how can we ensure that all the work we are doing with each other is always humanizing? Capitalism is something that across the board has really made an effort to dehumanize people - dehumanizing our need to take care of ourselves, dehumanize our need to feel fulfilled in the work that we are doing, and to have ownership over our creativity, imagination and hard work.” In just two years from the cooperative’s inception, it has proven to be a humanizing work model where worker-owners benefit from a sense of community, support network, meaningful living wage work, a pathway to ownership, help in advocating with and for members with possible landlords and employers, and navigating with their parole or probation officer. “One of the core tenants of cooperative structures is that beyond anything else it's about supporting your membership” says Trenda.
Trenda highlighted that there is a distinction between prison reform and prison abolition, “the criminal justice system is not inherently designed to provide adequate support for a transition out.” Rather than focusing attention on prison reform, which has proven to be largely insufficient in the reduction of prisoners and recidivism, Trenda exclaimed “we, as a society, need to stop criminalizing poverty, addiction, and mental health issues - we need to stop sending people into institutions that we know exacerbate these and other issues. We can come up with other systems that are not born out of racist ideologies and capitalistic strategies to profit off of mostly black and brown bodies in cages. That is part of the effort of The Compost Cooperative"
In addition to meaningful work, one of the greatest barriers upon release is securing housing that is affordable and safe. Thus far they have worked with 11 apprentices, 9 out of the 11 who had been released within one year experienced housing insecurity or homelessness. “With housing being one of the biggest barriers to successful reentry we recognized that we needed to try to mitigate that as well. So we are working to buy a house that can offer safe and affordable housing for co-op members. That feels like a core component of what it means to be a cooperative we take care of each other" says Trenda. They are currently crowdsourcing funds to purchase and renovate an affordable housing stock for Compost Co-op worker-owners.
Throughout history, cooperatives have been a sustainable alternative to the dominating system. “Cooperative structures provide an opportunity for folks to envision other options for ways of being in community and ways of cultivating communities of care that are not just a cycle of the exploitation of workers” says Trenda. They can be used as a part of the solution for crime prevention by encouraging a shift from scarcity to abundance and fulfilling one's needs from the community. “Cooperative structures encourage folks to talk to each other about wants, needs, and dreams, and how we can work cooperatively to make that happen. They acknowledge the interconnectedness about the way we move as individuals in community and the way communities and individuals move in relationship with the land” says Trenda.
Some of the tools individuals need to avoid getting sucked into the prison system are “community, adequate health care and mental health care, access to healthy foods, access to afterschool programming, and access to child care. "We can be asking ourselves and each other: What are the things people need to survive? To move beyond survival? When we recognize that the system has been designed to funnel and trap people in it, then we can begin to imagine the tools we need to dismantle that shit." says Trenda.
The idea of prison abolitionism and dismantling a system that has been intricately designed to suppress those most vulnerable can feel intimidating, but it begins with a more localized approach. Trenda illuminated that "smaller collectives building what works for their community is important. And I believe it is through the skill and resource sharing of these collectives - through cooperative collaboration that we can build new systems that are not anchored in oppression and bring us all closer to liberation."
Ebony Gustave (2020). A Pathway to Meaningful Work for Former Inmates: Interview with the Compost Co-op. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/articles/pathway-meaningful-work-former-inmates