Beekeeping Offers a Sweet Future for Former Inmates

This artisanal honey company is defying expectations and helping a community rally around its returning members.

image via (cc) flickr user julochka

Returning home after serving a term behind bars can be a difficult and scary proposition. Long-term removal from society, coupled with being labeled a former convict while trying to find a job and a place to stay, can contribute to pressure to fall back into old, unhealthy patterns. Former prisoners without stable support networks often find themselves at serious risk for recidivism as they start their new lives outside prison walls—a trend that has increased in the past several years, as a 2014 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics points out.


In Illinois, however, some former inmates are finding the support they need to successfully start over in the form of an unlikely ally: The honey bee.

For the past decade, Chicago-based Sweet Beginnings has been providing full time transitional jobs, as well as a sense of community, for people reentering society following time spent in prison. The company, which cultivates, makes, and sells upscale honey and honey-based skincare products, turned its first profit this year, and has grown its operation to accommodate forty employees annually, reports The Guardian.

Launched in 2004 as an initiative of the North Lawndale Employment Network, Sweet Beginnings exists thanks to founder and CEO Brenda Palms Barber, and start up capital from the Illinois Department of Corrections, as well as grants from MacArthur Foundation, Boeing, and even Ice Cream makers Ben and Jerry's, according to a 2007 Chicago Tribune story on the company. Employees of Sweet Beginnings help maintain and collect honey from dozens of apiaries situated throughout Chicago, which is then used for the the company’s trademarked “beelove” lines. Their “Chicagoland raw natural honey” combines the gleanings from their specific apiaries with that from other local hives, while their skincare products use that honey as its active moisturizing ingredient in things such as lip balm, shower gel, and body cream. Shoppers can purchase these and more from the company’s online store, which states:

[the] purchase of each beelove™ product helps people facing significant barriers to employment, particularly those with histories of criminal conviction. With your purchase you provide viable opportunities for individuals to establish a work history, learn productive work habits, and gain marketable skills. Your investment builds stepping stones toward employment, career advancement, and productive membership in society.

As for the honey itself, the company explains on its website that:

Urban honey is honey that is cultivated within a city. In our case, we raise bees that collect pollen and nectar in Chicago, make honey, and allow us to share it! We are able to bring you fresh, clean, and varied honey found absolutely nowhere else! Chicago’s west side hosts an abundance of nectar sources that are imported into the flavor and complexity of the honey cultivated here.

What’s more, says Sweet Beginnings, their honey is likely exposed to fewer pesticides, as the plants frequented by the urban bees aren’t being sprayed with industrial amounts chemicals as rural crops would be.

According to Sweet Beginnings, the recidivism rate of former employees is around four percent, dramatically lower than both the Illinois and national averages of fifty five and sixty five percent, respectively. Palms Barber tells The Guardian that eighty percent of the company’s employees go on to find full time work following their time with Sweet Beginnings. She explains: “It’s uncanny at times – people are afraid of bees, people are afraid of people who have been incarcerated. But the colony [is] working as a community. And I think that’s what re-entry looks like: finding your place and being productive.”

[via the guardian]

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