Worker Ownership Behind Bars: The World’s First Co-op Run Entirely by Prisoners

Roberto Luis Rodriguez Rosario with his book, Corazon Libre, Cuerpo Confinado.

By David Bacon

It was a cooperative in Puerto Rico's Guayama prison that changed his life. Growing up, Roberto Luis Rodriguez Rosario was surrounded by violence, and lived most of his pre-teen years in foster homes. "By the time I was a teenager, I was filled with anger," he remembers. "I became a rebel, and lost my way in drugs and alcohol. I stopped going to school at 14, and began getting arrested at 15. By the time I was 17 I was doing things that could get you locked up for life. Then, when I was 19, I saw what a disaster my life had become."

There were arrest warrants out for him, and Rodriguez made what he calls the most important decision of his life. He turned himself in. His sentences totaled 125 years, and even served concurrently, they still added up to 35 years behind bars. "But I began to work on my life," he reflected. When he was transferred from a maximum-security institution to the medium security prison in Guayama, Puerto Rico, he joined a worker-owned co-operative run entirely by the inmates.

"I was looking for tools to help me work on my problems,” said Rodriquez. “I thought at first [the co-op] was just a way to reduce my sentence, but once I got involved, and started practicing the principles of co-operativism, I realized it was making a big change in my life."

The co-op, started in 2003, has helped dozens of inmates reduce their sentences and return to their communities. Of the 50 co-op members who have been released from prison in the past ten years, including Rodriguez, only two have gone back to prison, and one of them is again out on parole. The recidivism rate elsewhere in Puerto Rican prisons is over 50 percent per year according to Lymarie Nieves Plaza, director of marketing at a local credit union. Today, the co-op has 40 active members, in a prison with a population of roughly 300. And cooperative projects have sprung up in three other prisons throughout Puerto Rico, where they plan to make everything from children’s clothing to renewable energy products.

“These are jobs that are much better than the slave labor the prison itself offers,” said Jessica Gordon Nembhard,  professor of community justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, where she studies how cooperatives can empower communities of color, prisoners, and returning citizens (read our interview with her about her latest book Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice). “There are many benefits from co-ops that extend beyond their market value. They promote leadership development, financial education and literacy, high level social skills, and collective decision-making that extend beyond the operations of the co-op.” 

The culture of cooperatives and democratic decision-making has had a big impact on the lives of many prisoners, Rodriguez explains, and cites his own history. The co-op meetings are run democratically, and every member has a voice. That creates the basis for trust in each other. "I can have an opinion in a meeting, but the members decide everything," said Nieves who has been working as a co-op educator and marketer with the prison co-ops.

“The co-op provides a different point of view,” said Gordon Nembhard. “It's not ‘me against the world’. It’s the co-op and my fellow members working and thinking together. They can now afford to pay for the things they need and help to support their families even though they are in prison. That is transformational.”

Changing laws and changing lives

Creating the co-op took several years and a change in the law. In 2000, a small group of prisoners in the Guayama state prison began to create craft items in an art therapy program. Some combined clay figures of Don Quixote or of saints, on a carved wooden base, holding a brightly painted Puerto Rican flag. Some inmates were leather workers, and made portfolios, belts, hats, and sandals. Others carved boats, or made pencil portraits.

None could be sold outside the prison, however. One of the inmates, Hector Quiñones Andino, began to investigate how prisoners might organize themselves so that their work might find a market. He looked at two possibilities. One was to form a corporation. "But they didn't like that idea much," Rodriguez says, "because it focused too much on individual profit." Quiñones found a book about cooperatives, and that provided another alternative. So he asked for an orientation from the Co-operative League of Puerto Rico, according to Rodriguez.

Discovering that they faced a legal prohibition from participating in cooperatives because of their criminal history, Quiñones and fellow prisoners in the art program wrote a letter to the governor at the time, Sila Maria Calderon, asking her to modify the law. She was moved by their story, met with some of the prisoners, and in 2003 she worked with the legislature to amend the law.

The co-op they established, the Cooperativa de Servicios ARIGOS, was the first co-op ever organized exclusively by prisoners themselves, with a board of directors made up solely of inmates. To become a member, a prisoner has to buy a $20 share, and inmates without the money up-front can work off the cost in about two months. After that, each co-op member has a voice in meetings, and one vote.

Most of the craftwork is sold in assemblies or public events organized by other cooperatives or associations. Inmates themselves can go to present their work, but they must pay for transportation and the prison guards who accompany them. They have recently expanded their work to include a nursery growing cucumbers, bell peppers and tomatoes used in the food eaten by inmates.

Rodriguez is not much of an artist, he says, so he became the co-op's secretary, responsible for keeping the books and seeking new markets. Of the money received in sales, 15 percent goes to the prison for the cost of the space and services, and 10 percent is invested by the co-op in capital expenses. The other 75 percent is divided among the co-op members. "For us, this is so much better than working for the prison itself, where they only pay $25 for 160 hours you work in a month," he explains.

The co-op has to defend its existence to the prison, often in strict economic terms. Rodriguez smiles at the way they have been able to meet objections that the co-op costs the prison money. "We showed that the prison was getting $10,000-$15,000 from its share of our sales," he recalls. "That made them much more interested in supporting us."

After serving just over 14 years of his sentence, Rodriguez was released on parole, which he completed a year ago. Life outside, however, has been challenging. Rodriguez would like to start a co-op for ex-co-op members, but it's difficult to get people together, and parole restrictions bar socializing among ex-inmates, a law they hope to change soon. Rodriguez recently released a book on his experience, entitled Corazon Libre, Cuerpo Confinado (Free Heart, Confined Body).

"We've learned how to run a business, and some former inmates now have their own small businesses outside as a result,” said Rodriguez. “If you can change the way people think in prison, you can do anything. It is a model for social change."