There are not many populations more "marginalized" than the inmates of Mountain Institute, a medium-security penitentiary in the Lower Mainland of B.C. Over the last two years the Institute has also been home to a unique experiment in social enterprise: InsideArt, a marketing co-operative for inmate glass- and woodworkers. It's a notion with a lot of appeal. It offers hard skills and positive connections with the outside world that will make parole more attractive and more likely to succeed.
The enterprise has involved some troubling compromises. It has not gained official recognition and remains a "hobby" that Corrections Services Canada may end at any time. Security requirements quadruple the amount of time it takes to make and carry out standard business decisions. There has not been time enough both to prepare the members for the responsibilities of management and to sell their art. Finally, to overcome the huge commercial handicap imposed by isolation, the co-op welcomed non-incarcerated members to form a stewardship council and streamline the decision-making process.
Nevertheless, the co-op's return on investment looks promising. Three members are now displaying an interest in parole - a savings to taxpayers of $90,000 per inmate per year. "It all made me realize that there are still people out there that appreciate who I am," said one member, "and that led me to want to be a better person."