A Co-operative Approach to Reintegration

Part 5 in a blog series exploring a community-based response to our criminality crisis

Curator’s note: Peterborough Dialogues welcomes Ralph Gutkin in a blog series exploring an alternative response to the criminality crisis which currently strains society financially and emotionally. His blogs will move through the depths of the concern into what can our region can do about it.

In my previous post we looked at our track record of funding programs that provide life and job skills training, a work experience and assistance in finding ‘permanent’ employment for inmates and ex-offenders. We know that these have proven quite valuable in the reintegration/rehabilitation process but the model has its sustainability issues. We will now shift our focus to the (multi-stakeholder) worker co-op model, examine what we know of its efficacy and the plan I am proposing for this community.

First of all, let’s examine these terms:

Worker co-operatives are businesses that are owned and democratically controlled by the members… through operating an enterprise that follows the Co-operative Values and Principles.”  (Canadian Worker Co-op Federation, Starting a Worker Co-op: A Canadian Handbook)

Multi-stakeholder co-operatives (MSCs) are co-ops that formally allow for governance by representatives of two or more “stakeholder” groups within the same organization, including… workers, volunteers or general community supporters. Rather than being organized around a single class of members the way that most co-operatives are, multi-stakeholder co-operatives enjoy a heterogeneous membership base. The common mission that is the central organizing principle of a multi-stakeholder co-operative is also often more broad than the kind of mission statement needed to capture the interests of only a single stakeholder group, and will generally reflect the interdependence of interests of the multiple partners.” (Lund, Solidarity as a Business Model: A Multi-Stakeholder Co-operatives Manual, Co-operative Development Center at Kent State University)

The seedling for this project spontaneously emerged last June as I was listening to a report on the CBC radio program, The Sunday Edition, regarding worker co-operatives in California. I immediately went back to Starting a Worker Co-op: A Canadian Handbook published by the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation and confirmed my belief of the obvious synchronicity of the principles of rehabilitation/reintegration with those of the co-op movement:

“Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. Co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility, and caring for others.”

“Being a member of a co-operative exposes prisoners to a set of values that are consistent with good citizenship and should in themselves support a successful reintegration.”

This was recognized by the John Howard Society Canada which published a report entitled, Prisoner-based Co-operatives: Working it out in Canada, in 2013:

“The very principles of co-operatives embody pro-social values that support the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners. Membership in co-operatives is voluntary, so only willing participants would be members, and this would increase engagement to the endeavour. The fact that all members have a voice and share in the ownership would make it an empowering experience and emphasize collaboration… The linking of the member’s share of the proceeds to the member’s contribution should promote a shared work ethic and a sense of fairness. As autonomous, self-help organizations controlled by their members, members make the decisions about the direction of the business. This is consistent with the research on reducing recidivism that emphasizes the significance of acquiring capacities to govern and control the direction of one’s life as well as opportunities necessary to exercise those capacities. The provision of education and training for members to enable them to contribute to the co-operative is particularly important for prisoners. It would allow them not just to get the training needed for the industry of the co-operative but would also support their reintegration… Being a member of a co-operative exposes prisoners to a set of values that are consistent with good citizenship and should in themselves support a successful reintegration.”

There has been some exciting research conducted which supports this which I will explore in my next post.

In conclusion, let’s look at some of the statistics which have been published regarding the track record of inmate/ex-offender worker co-ops:

  • In Italy, where there were 1,146 prisoners employed in about 100 prison worker co-ops in 2014, their recidivism rate dropped to less than 10 per cent from the national average of 80 per cent. (Apparently, some individual studies have shown even more remarkable results).
  • Sweden estimates that worker co-ops save the equivalent of roughly $155,000 CDN each year per worker in cost-savings to governments relating to criminal justice, addictions, social services, and health care.
  • UK’s Ex-cell (former inmate worker co-op) program which has been operating since 2006 has recorded reoffending rates one year after release of less than 2 per cent compared with the typical 40 per cent rate.

Part 1 — Exploring a Community-based Response to our Criminality Crisis

Part 2 — Understanding Systemic Contributors to Crime and Recidivism 

Part 3 — Successful Reintegration Requires Community Support

Part 4 — The Rehabilitative Impact Of Social Enterprises

Part 6 — Worker Co-op Model Proving Supportive of Rehabilitation

Part 7 — The Resilience of and Success Markers for Worker Co-ops

Part 8 — A ‘Delicious Idea’ for a Worker Co-op In Peterborough

Part 9 — Co-creating a Restorative Community

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  1. Cheryl Lyon

    Ralph, you make it obvious that Worker Co-op is the way to go for your ex-offender idea. In fact, more broadly, in our rapidly disintegrating economy, they seem almost necessary, a survival adaptation in local circumstances.

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