skip navigation
Support KUOW
Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Washington. View photo slideshow for this story. Photos by Kevin P. Casey for KUOW.

Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, Washington. View photo slideshow for this story. Photos by Kevin P. Casey for KUOW.


Program Helps Women In Prison Become Entrepreneurs

Patricia Murphy

Life in prison is regimented, controlled, so for some inmates, the thought of returning to life on the outside can be daunting. There are many volunteer programs in Washington state prisons that can help ease that transition. They provide opportunities for offenders to improve their education and well–being before release.

At Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, one program goes further. It offers graduates the opportunity to apply for business microloans. KUOW's Patricia Murphy reports.


It's shortly after 8:00 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. Sixteen women file into their classroom, each carrying an accordion file, calculator and a giant mug filled with coffee.

Instructor Anthony Gromko positions himself in front of a whiteboard and begins writing out the agenda for today's class.

Gromko: "So if you guys want to take out the homework that we started to work on last class. Lesson 24: the cash flow projections."

Most of the women look young enough to be in college, though it's unlikely that they've done this level of class work before.

Student: "So if you have inventory purchase of 840 here, why on this sheet do you have it as 450?"

Over 32 weeks, the Lifelong Program for Entrepreneurs will teach these women to plan and run a small business. When they're released, graduates of the program can apply for a microloan based on the business plan they developed during to the class.

Christina Mannering is serving 13 years for attempted murder and burglary. She's been in prison since she was 20.

Mannering: "There's a lot of homework every week. You have to be somebody who's willing to put in the time, and understand how to crunch the numbers. And if you don't understand, you have to be willing to say, 'Look, I don't understand. I need help.'"

Mannering says the work is often challenging, but she's learned to how to handle the frustration.

Mannering: "I tell myself you know it's a little overwhelming right now, I'll come back to it later. Then when I come back to it later it makes a little more sense."

During her time in prison, Mannering has studied technical drafting and even done some freelance work for an architectural firm. She's hopeful they will hire her when she's released early next year.

The Lifelong Information for Entrepreneurs, or LIFE, is facilitated by MercyCorps Northwest. It's one of 52 volunteer programs at Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor.

In class, instructor Anthony Gromko is attentive and respectful to each student's needs and emotions. He says it's important to balance hope with reality.

Gromko: "We want to provide micro–enterprise as a viable option and show them this is a long term — that there is long–term potential for them — and there is an option long term in this. But we also realize starting a business coming directly out of prison is unrealistic. But that's why we also work in how to build a resume, effective interviewing, effective listening, effective speaking and that sort of thing for traditional employment."

On this day, the class spends time on another difficult subject: how to talk with potential employers about their time in prison.

For many of the women, the class is both heartening and inspiring.

Mannering says Gromko's attention has given her a sense of what's possible outside these walls. Her long–term plan is to help her father grow the family construction business.

Mannering: "My biggest fear is failure — not necessarily coming back to prison, but just not having anything: not having a job, not being successful when I get out, just being a bump on a log and being a disappointment to my family."

The LIFE program is in its first year at Washington Corrections Center for Women. The Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon has hosted the LIFE program for five years.

In that time, they've provided five graduates with microloans to start their own business.

I'm Patricia Murphy, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW