Photo courtesy of author.

Throughout the world, cooperatives are engaging people in prison and individuals who have been released from the carceral system to create dignified work that benefits the individual and the broader community.

Can cooperatives, based on the values of democracy, equity, and “one person, one vote,” offer sustainable solutions for people navigating reentry in the United States? Collective REMAKE, a hybrid cooperative nonprofit in Los Angeles County, is working to do just that, along with a broad stakeholder network.

Los Angeles County runs the largest jail system in the world, with the capacity to cage over 20,000 individuals. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the average population in the county jail facilities was around 17,000 people. Because of the virus’s rapid spread through those facilities, nearly 5,000 individuals were released early or pre-trial; despite that, the jail population is now creeping back up. Black people make up approximately eight percent of the Los Angeles County population, yet they are 29 percent of the jail population.

Thousands of people are released from prison and jail every month to Los Angeles County. Most plan to stay at home, plan to support loved ones, plan to give back. Yet the odds are stacked against them. Upon release, and often on parole, individuals return home to areas that have been disenfranchised politically, socially, and economically over the last 40–50 years.

The last four decades have been a period of extreme economic division caused by an unbridled inequitable market, bolstered by measures put forth by conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats alike. Neoliberal policies have created what Steven Pitts calls the Age of Inequality. In the same timeframe, 1980 to present, a similar line on the graph represents the drastic increase in incarceration rates, rises in higher education fees, slashes in funding for social programs and K-12 education, flight of industry, and loss of living wage jobs.

The extraction of people and wealth has traumatized low-income communities and communities of color. In Los Angeles, where I live, the racial disparities have been especially egregious. Some call it “Apartheid L.A.”

The impacts of this apartheid have been exposed and compounded during the pandemic. In June 2020, the unemployment rate in predominantly Black neighborhoods in Los Angeles was 22–32 percent, whereas in white areas it was between 10 and 17 percent. For people who have a criminal conviction in their past, opportunities to find work for a sustainable wage are scarce. Racism in the job market is as prevalent as ever, even for those without a record.

Worker-owned businesses and other kinds of cooperatives can ignite a local economy in communities that have been economically disenfranchised and suffer from over-policing and high rates of incarceration. Cooperatives offer a democratic business structure and embedded community, a viable opportunity for individuals who are otherwise discriminated against in the job market because they have a criminal record.

As Thomas Porter-Smith, a board member with lived experience in the California prison system, explains, “Cooperatives offer an accepting environment, where people just getting out can get grounded, build a social network, and at the same time, learn to stand on their own two feet; and they are able to work for the benefit of their loved ones and their community.”

Although cooperatives of all kinds are around us, many people in the US would be at a loss if asked to describe what a cooperative is. In the US, nonprofit circles and the growing world of social enterprise do not embrace the notion of cooperative values and principles as they do in Europe and elsewhere. As defined by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), “A cooperative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.”

Seven cooperative principles, along with a set of values, were adopted by the ICA in 1995. The original principles were developed in the 1840s by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers—a group of intellectuals, artists, and weavers in Manchester, England—who broke from the exploitive textile industry, and from shops where mill owners often mixed their flour with sawdust to increase profits—to create cooperative businesses. Their first business was a small shop owned by 28 people that sold butter, flour, oatmeal, and sugar. To become an owner, members paid one pound sterling, a sizable sum in those days. Many, however, paid in installments of two pence a week. (Back in the 1840s, there were 240 pence to a pound, so buying an ownership share required 120 weeks of payments at that rate.)

The Rochdale Pioneers were radical for the times, comprising people from different social classes and with diverse religious beliefs. The first woman became a member in 1846, just 16 months after the cooperative’s founding. Women had equal voting rights to men—a big deal in 1846—but were outnumbered due to the fact that fewer women had access to money than men.

The set of seven principles under which cooperatives operate today are:

  • voluntary and open membership
  • democratic membe