Business Behind Bars: Coffee Shop Inside Vt. Prison Encourages Better Behavior

Incarcerated individuals run the Good Spirit Cafe at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield

NBC Universal, Inc.

A new coffee shop in Vermont is a standout not for what it sells — but where it sells it.

Behind the razor wire fences and cold walls of the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, incarcerated individuals are in the first month of running the new Good Spirit Cafe.

“Vermont’s always been brave enough to try something,” said Michael Lewis, who’s serving a lengthy sentence for vehicular manslaughter and who worked to launch the cafe.

The men are housed in the honors unit at SSCF. It is a special section offering increased independence.

Using self-help books and some guidance from corrections department educators, Lewis and peers opened the cafe earlier this month — aiming to run it as close to a real business as possible, with spreadsheets, invoices, supplier contracts and more.

“The coffee shop is sort of the theme, but the idea really is small business management,” Lewis told NECN & NBC10 Boston in an interview Monday inside the new cafe.

Incarcerated customers don’t use cash. When facility staff witness good behavior from guys behind bars, they give out cards which end up representing income for the cafe. The cards can be exchanged for a pastry or a fresh-brewed cup of coffee.

"In an institution like this, often the focus is on the stick," observed Carl Butterfield, who is incarcerated on a furlough violation. "And this gives staff and corrections officers an opportunity to provide a carrot for a change, which I think is really a positive thing."

The men who serve as business managers noted a fresh-brewed cup of coffee is a true treat in a place where water or milk are generally served with breakfast.

“By being able to have this type of interaction with various people, it just kind of helps me hold onto my humanity,” added Perry Thompson, who was convicted of sexual assault on a minor, and who helps run the Good Spirit Cafe serving other incarcerated individuals. “Hopefully, it sets the stage for a behavior pattern that they can take with them once they get out on the street.”

Corrections officials said much of what it took to get the cafe up and running was already on hand. Some materials were donated, according to SSCF superintendent Mike Lyon, who explained the cafe is in a space formerly used as a chapel.

Lyon said he hopes the return on what he described as a small financial investment will come in the form of both a safer atmosphere and constructive experiences — soft skills that could help the workers succeed in jobs when they reenter society, reducing the chances of them landing back here.

“My approach to this is, ‘Let’s look at the positives,’” Lyon told NECN & NBC10 Boston. “What can we provide the incarcerated individuals to better meet their needs as they transition to the community in more of a positive way?”

The state plans to grow its honors unit program in other facilities in 2023, saying in a news release it wants to use them as places to keep serving up innovative correctional and job training programs. 

Contact Us