By Gladys Amador GAmador@mail.barry.edu
The last time Anne Lanzetta was a free woman, she lived alone. She was divorced, and her children had been taken away by state welfare workers. Lanzetta paid her bills by using the credit card of a friend suffering from multiple sclerosis. In 2009, she was arrested and served 20 months in prison for exploiting the elderly or handicapped. Today, the 55-year-old is once again free and plans to open her own business − a Christian book store she hopes to name Glad Tidings.
"I've made a lot of bad choices, things I'm not proud of," Lanzetta says of her life before prison. "I threw it all away, but now I am going to rebuild it."
Thanks to an innovative four-month program co-directed by Barry's Entrepreneurial Institute, Lanzetta's new life actually started behind bars, before her release date. During her prison stint, Lanzetta was one of 11 other women at the Broward Correctional Institute (BCI) who took part in L.E.A.P. (Ladies Empowerment and Action Program), a curriculum designed to teach female inmates how to reintegrate into society. The classes cover everything from life skills lessons to how to start and operate a small business.
L.E.A.P. is the first program of its kind in Florida. Taught inside the prison's chapel, it caters to women, convicted of non-violent offenses, who are about to be released. It is unique because it is geared exclusively toward women, and teaches both social rehabilitation and business entrepreneurship.
Gemma Betancourt and Pat Glover, or the "L.E.A.P. Ladies" as they are known by the inmates, started the nonprofit organization in 2009, after they volunteered for another faith-based group working with inmates. Through the help of Beverly Kovach, assistant vice president and compliance officer at Mercantil Commercebank, the ladies found the missing piece in Barry.
"We really believe this program makes a huge impact not only in a person's life but in society," Betancourt said. "It's a greater good that keeps recidivism rates down, keeps them from going back in."
While they may be in short supply in Florida and nationwide, the need for programs such as L.E.A.P. has never been greater. Women constitute the fastest growing demographic of prisoners in the nation. As of 2006, there were half a million women in prison worldwide; one-third of which were in the United States. According to the Federal Bureau of Justice, the recidivism rate is above 65 percent nationally. L.E.A.P.'s goal is to empower ex-offenders with the tools they will need to start their own business, be hired or become economically self-sustained and less likely to commit another crime. It is currently in its third chapter.
"It takes many people to do good work, community work," said Dr. Philip Mann, professor and director of the Entrepreneurial Institute at Barry's Institute for Community and Economic Development (BICED). The grant-based initiative from the Andreas School of Business provides expertise and counsel to existing and aspiring business owners as well as to nonprofits working with or representing economically disadvantaged communities.
"There's a strong social-emotional effect that is a byproduct of L.E.A.P. It is almost as important as the [class] content that the inmates get," Mann added, noting that there is a sobering moment when parents and friends come into a prison and see a member of their family graduate from a business preparation program. He believes it imparts hopefulness and gives families a sense that the problems that contributed to incarceration, such as domestic violence, poverty and substance abuse, are not completely insurmountable.
"The good feelings L.E.A.P. generates are great motivators as they prepare to leave incarceration," said Mann, who committed to the project last year. "Life outside prison is going to be difficult enough."
In order to prevent the inmates from becoming overwhelmed by the challenges they face, the L.E.A.P. ladies commit to staying connected with the women for up to one year after their release, to help them stay on track for a successful transition to the outside world.
During training, inmates are asked to complete full business plans that include marketing, branding, management and bookkeeping. Guest speakers teach them about coping with stress outside prison walls, time management, dressing for interviews and computer skills, among other topics.
Dr. Anne Fiedler, a management professor at Barry's Andreas School of Business, was hesitant when approached about teaching inmates inside a prison compound, but said she soon found she looked forward to coming back each week.
"When I gave them an assignment, they put their heart into it," said Fiedler. "I'm not used to that kind of enthusiasm. Often my students complete assignments simply because I tell them to, but these women really wanted my feedback."
Above all, Fiedler says that she goes back to teach because these women don't have resources, in or out of prison, and education is the only way to break that cycle of crime and poverty.
For Lanzetta, the classroom setting helped to rebuild a sense of self that had been lost in an institution where the women are known by inmate numbers, not their first names.
"For a long time, I didn't respond to the name Anne," she said. "I was called by my last name, or as an inmate."
For now, Lanzetta is working part time for a cruise line selling customers upgrades for their vacations, and lives in a Pompano Beach halfway house with several other women striving to build their futures.
She meets with her probation officer regularly, and attends substance abuse support meetings and Bible study once a week.
"I have a plan," she said. "I know it's not going to happen overnight, but my dreams of owning my business are real."
Lanzetta explained the idea of owning a Christian bookstore stemmed from some advice she received during her L.E.A.P. training, that a good business venture required passion.
"My passion for books and study combined with my passion for the Word is the basis behind Glad Tidings," said Lanzetta. "I can do the Lord's work."
As for other program graduates, thanks to L.E.A.P. and Barry's Entrepreneurial Institute, their plans include opening up a salon, a mobile food truck and an electrical contracting company, among many other enterprises.
"Education is among the most powerful tools for change at our disposal; these women serve as the physical embodiment of this truth," said Glover, L.E.A.P.'s co-founder.
On Dec. 1, 2010, the program's first graduation day, Lanzetta told fellow inmates, the L.E.A.P. ladies, family members and Barry University professors in attendance how she already felt like something in her life had changed.
"For three hours a day, I step through those doors into this chapel and I am no longer a convicted felon serving time in prison, but an academic."
That morning, the first group of graduates wore white caps and gowns. The guest speaker was Barry University President Sister Linda Bevilacqua, OP, PhD, who moved the inmates to tears.
"On the first of every month, know you did this for yourselves," Bevilacqua said. "Remember, this is not your identity. You are all bound, not by the fact you were in this facility, but because you walked together in this journey as 'leapers.' "