Photo: Courtesy International Labour Organization

Several places around the world have begun to use cooperative business development as a strategy to serve incarcerated and returning citizens. Major examples come from Puerto Rico, Ethiopia, Italy, Sweden, and Canada, and can be seen in many different industries, including craft production, catering, construction, bicycle manufacturing, and more.1 In these situations, prisoners not only earn more money in prison, they build skills that help keep themselves out of prison after release. Could a similar approach in the US mainland similarly help reduce what are currently sky-high recidivism rates?

Benefits and Impacts of Cooperatives

I have written widely about the benefits of co-ops to communities.2 We know that co-ops have longer survival rates than traditional small businesses; they anchor and recirculate resources in the local economy; and they provide education and training, including general business skills, industry specific skills, and social capital skills—such as team work and leadership development.3

Co-ops address market failures: they create jobs and meaningful work; provide affordable, quality goods and services; and are economically and environmentally sustainable. They build wealth by pooling resources, sharing risks and profits, and enabling the accumulation of assets. Co-ops promote democratic economic participation and democratic governance; transparency; and civic engagement.

In addition, cooperatives foster reciprocal and trust relationships4 that generate more efficient economic exchanges, values-based exchanges that prioritize community, and positive externalities, such as social benefits to members, their families, and communities.5 Co-ops are good neighbors and community assets. Moreover, cooperatives both successfully address the effects of crises and survive crises better than other types of enterprises.6

In worker cooperatives, the relationship between the worker and the firm is of membership,7 rather than the employment contract. Workers participate in decisions about their working conditions and are motivated to succeed.8 Many worker-owned cooperatives, in particular, increase industry standards in wages and benefits, as well as provide opportunities for skill development, capacity building, and job security.9

Student-owners of cooperative businesses learn math, research, communication, and business skills on-the-job. Cooperative ownership and democratic governance also train them to apply problem solving, teamwork, and facilitation skills for the rest of their lives.10

These benefits are especially significant and helpful to marginalized people and their communities. All of these benefits do and could aid incarcerated and returning citizens to develop new expertise and capacities—industry-specific skills, as well as social capital and trust— and help them successfully transition back into society. Below I present some preliminary data on two cases—Cooperativa ARIGOS in Puerto Rico, and a system of 31 co-ops at Mekelle Prison in Ethiopia.

Cooperativa ARIGOS, Puerto Rico

My initial research of the prison co-ops in Puerto Rico uncovered a bottom-up approach and transformative growth among the co-op members.11 It was the incarcerated citizens themselves who demanded co-op business education and the right to own their own co-ops. They petitioned for a change in commonwealth law and then founded Cooperativa ARIGOS. Creating their own dignified work, controlling their own businesses together with other inmates, and earning enough money to help support their families, made a huge difference in every aspect of their lives—including commuted sentences and very low recidivism.

The Puerto Rican League of Cooperatives (Liga de Cooperativas de Puerto Rico) works with the Corrections Department to establish worker/producer cooperatives among incarcerated people in their facilities. They supported incarcerated people in changing Puerto Rico’s co-op law to allow incarcerated people to own their own co-ops and provide co-op education to incarcerated worker-owners. Four worker co-ops currently exist in Puerto Rican prisons—art, solar, and technology co-ops in men’s prisons, and a sewing co-op in a women’s prison—and a fifth is in development.

Cooperativa de Servicios ARIGOS in Guayama Penitentiary began with art therapy. As the incarcerated men became more focused on their art and began thinking about a business model for selling their art, they learned about the co-op business ownership model and demanded co-op education. They found that Puerto Rican co-op law did not allow incarcerated people to be members or directors of a co-op. They started talking to people about how to change the law. This led to a meeting with the then-governor of Puerto Rico, Sila María Calderón, and lobbying the State Assembly to change the law. They succeeded, and the law was changed. They incorporated as a cooperative owned entirely by incarcerated men.

The co-op soon signed a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Corrections for the use of office space, electricity, computers, etc., in exchange for a 15-percent share of their profits, and to pay extra for security, especially when traveling to events to sell their wares. They retain 10 percent of profits to use to sustain the business, and 75 percent of profits go to the incarcerated worker-owners.

Over time, the co-op established strict standards for who could represent the co-op when out at sales events. They also rephrased the international co-op principles to better reflect the experiences of incarcerated people. Over the first 10 years, there have been only two cases of recidivism among the over 50 co-op members who were released (and one of them is already back out on parole).

Mekelle Prison, Ethiopia

The prison administration of Mekelle Prison, in the town of Mekelle in north Ethiopia, initiated a rehabilitation and skills training program combined with access to financial services and income-generating opportunities.12 The prison engages in several initiatives to promote self-sufficiency (to develop self-supporting citizens) and women’s and youth empowerment. The inmates are allowed to organize licensed producer cooperatives, to access outside markets, and to borrow working capital. This has enabled incarcerated people in Mekelle Prison to establish 31 active co-ops, with over 900 incarcerated members at any one time.

The Ethiopian co-ops range from dairy and vegetable farming, to cobblestone cutting and paving, to metalworks, carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work, to bakery, weaving, and sewing. All co-op members receive vocational training, financial education, and access to micro-loans and micro-insurance. Some receive advanced training. Members save about a third of their co-op income, provide remittances to their family, and spend their earnings on necessities. Formerly incarcerated members may continue their membership in the co-op once released.

According to the Mekelle Prison, only 16 co-op members were returned to the prison out of a total of 1,416 released prisoners who were released one year after participating in a co-op. Prison officers at Mekelle are also trained in co-op management and leadership to better support their incarcerated clients.

Lessons Learned

The philosophy behind these models focuses on the “co-ownership of justice” by incarcerated people, criminal justice staff, victims, families, and local communities.13 Co-ops help to put incarcerated people in charge of some of their own rehabilitation, at the same time that it provides dignified work and genuine opportunities to both earn a living and give back to their families and to their community.

Government support in the form of enabling laws, directives, and financial support in some countries—such as Italy, Sweden, and Ethiopia—has been an important contributor to success. According to an International Labor Organization study, the success of the Mekelle prison, for example, is aided by government directives that encourage prison officers to initiate innovative programs, as well as to the partnership it has created with regional stakeholders such as the bureaus of Education, Health, Labor, credit societies, and Mekelle University.

In Puerto Rico, the role of the Puerto Rican League of Cooperatives is crucial to the success of the incarcerated worker co-ops there. The League secures support and procurement from the co-op community as well as government support. Providing access to financial support, especially through Puerto Rico’s credit unions and insurance cooperatives, has also been important.

Education and training have been essential in every example, for incarcerated people as well as prison officers and officials. Co-op management education is equally as important as co-op business development training.

There are also barriers to developing and supporting such co-ops. Prison directors change often and have to be educated and re-educated about co-ops. Prison bureaucracies make it difficult to put co-ops in place and sustain them. All players lack co-op information and adequate training in co-op business ownership and democratic decision-making. Sometimes, there are legal barriers to incarcerated people forming a cooperative. Also, society’s view of prisoners as undeserving of dignified work, and the commodification of prisoners and prison slave labor, are huge barriers.

Given the many and varied benefits and impacts of cooperatives, a key question remains regarding how to increase their number and strengthen those that already exist. The barriers need to be studied along with the successful practices, and new ways must be developed to address the challenges. Better knowledge about co-ops; more uniform and enabling legislation at the local, state and federal levels; and supportive state and federal policies all would help expand the development and strengthen the viability of prison-based cooperatives.

How do we bring these models to the US mainland? I have begun connecting with people nationally who are working on curricular and legal strategies. I also felt I needed to understand this population better, so I now teach an undergraduate course in Africana Communities in a state prison. I include a module on cooperative economics and Black co-ops.

I find that my incarcerated students are eager to learn about these topics. They latch onto the examples of African American co-op successes and get excited. But many also worry that these are small, minor successes, and believe it is unrealistic to expect a large number of Black co-ops could survive in the 21st century. Many are skeptical that co-ops really work, and that people can collaborate effectively. But at the same time, my students are intrigued about operating a business based on values and cooperation and want to pursue this when released.

Clearly, enabling legislation to allow inmates and formerly incarcerated people to form and own their own cooperatives and to provide the necessary resources to support these cooperatives is necessary. Equally important for incarcerated and previously incarcerated people, we need to also encourage the delivery of co-op business education and the development of cooperatives while in prisons, and to support cooperative ownership once they are released.

The benefits we find from cooperative ownership should be shared with incarcerated and previously incarcerated people and their communities. In the words of Roberto Rodriguez, “I never imagined that working in a cooperative, I would find the ideal model to rehabilitate myself.”14


  1. See Meegan Moriarty, “From Bars to Freedom: Prisoner co-ops boost employment, self-esteem and support re-entry into society.” Rural Cooperatives 83, No. 1, January/February 2016 pp. 14-18, 37; and Andrea Perrone, Tommaso Bardelli, Pauline Bernard, and Rachele Greco, Working and Forgiveness Behind Bars: Giotto in the Due Palazzi Prison of Padua. Working Papers WP-2WEL 3/15, Percorsi di secondo welfare, Torino, Italy, 2015.
  2. See especially Jessica Gordon Nembhard, White Paper: Benefits and Impacts of Cooperatives. With factsheet, executive summary and tables. Washington, DC: the Center on Race and Wealth, Howard University, February 2014. See also Jessica Gordon Nembhard, “Understanding and Measuring the Benefits and Impacts of Co-operatives.” In L. Brown, et al (eds). Co-operatives for Sustainable Communities: Tools to Measure Co-operative Impact and Performance, pp. 152-179. Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada and Centre for the Study of Co-operatives, Saskatoon, SK: University of Saskatchewan, 2015. Sonja Novkovic and Jessica Gordon Nembhard, “Beyond the Economy: The Social Impact of Cooperatives,” Cooperative Business Journal, fall 2017, pp. 12-22.
  3. See Gordon Nembhard 2015, and Novkovic and Gordon Nembhard 2017 for the sources of all the information in this and following paragraphs about co-op benefits.
  4. Roger Spear, “The Co-operative Advantage.” Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics, volume 71, no. 4 (2000), pp. 507-23.
  5. Murray Fulton and Lou Hammond Ketilson, The Role of Cooperatives in Communities: Examples from Saskatchewan,” Journal of Agricultural Cooperation, volume 7: 15-42, 1992, page 36. Carlo Borzaga and Giulia Galera, Promoting the Understanding of Cooperatives for a better world. Summary, proceedings of “Promoting the Understanding of Cooperatives for a Better World” conference, sponsored by Euricse and International Cooperative Alliance, Venice, Italy, March 15 and 16, 2012, page 11.
  6. Borzaga and Galera, 2012, p. 7.
  7. David Ellerman, The Democratic Worker-Owned Firm. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990, p.206.
  8. For additional details about worker co-ops, see Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 2014; and Georgeanne M. Artz and Younjun Kim, Business ownership by workers: are worker cooperatives a viable option? Economics Working Papers (2002–2016), November 9, 2011.
  9. For example, cooperatives such as Cooperative Home Care Associates, Childspace, Workers’ Own Sewing Company, and APR Masonry Arts (See Gordon Nembhard, Collective Courage).
  10. See Jessica Gordon Nembhard, “Educating Black Youth for Economic Empowerment: Democratic Economic Participation and School Reform Practices and Policies.” In Handbook of African American Education, edited by Linda Tillman, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2008, pp. 481-498.; and, Jessica Gordon Nembhard and Valerie Ooka Pang, “Ethnic Youth Programs: Teaching about Caring Economic Communities and Self-Empowered Leadership.” In Critical Race Theory Perspectives on the Social Studies: The Profession, Policies, and Curriculum, edited by Gloria Ladson-Billings, Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing, 2003, pp. 171-197.
  11. This information came from interviews with Lymarie Nieves Plaza 2015; and Roberto Luis Rodriguez Rosario, 2015, through various interviews with the author and workshop presentations with the author in Epes, AL; Worcester, MA; Amherst, MA; and Oakland, CA.
  12. This information comes from a report prepared by the International Labor Organization (Country Office for Ethiopia and Somalia) and Italian Development Corporation, “The Mekelle Prison Project: Creating Sustainable Livelihood Opportunities for Women and Youth.”
  13. These terms come from the author’s email exchanges in 2015 with Dave Nicholson and Cliff Mills of Ex-Cell Solutions in the United Kingdom; and conversations with Elizabeth Weaver, Senior Lecturer at University of Stathclyde, Glasgow Scotland, at various conferences between 2015 and 2019.
  14. See Moriarty 2016, p. 18.

Jessica Gordon Nembhard is a political economist, and professor of Community Justice and Social Economic Development in the Department of Africana Studies at John Jay College, of the City University of New York (CUNY); and is author of Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.