Former convicts in Chicago find work -- with honeybees

(CBS News) CHICAGO -- When you're convicted of a crime in this country, your chances of future employment are cut in half. Amir Futrell knows that first hand.

Futrell served six years for selling cocaine; when he got out of prison, he had two kids to support and no job prospects.

"I didn't want to revert to what brought me into the penitentiary, so I was looking for a new way," he said. "You have to try something different and this was it."

Former inmates work producing honey for Sweet Beginnings, a company started by Brenda Palms Barber.
Former inmates work producing honey for Sweet Beginnings, a company started by Brenda Palms Barber.
CBS News

Futrell found Brenda Palms Barber and her bees. She hires former inmates and turns them into beekeepers.

"These are people who had served time for crimes but could not get back into the labor market because of their backgrounds," she said.

Palms Barber helps them gain work experience so they can start building a resume, as she builds an unlikely business on the mean streets of Chicago.

"There are lots of weeds on the West Side and there are weeds that produce nectar," she said. "In fact they produce some beautiful delicious honey as well."

Brenda Palms Barber
Brenda Palms Barber
CBS News

There's a metaphor in there, somewhere.

"It isn't about what we see as a flower or a weed, it's just drawing the good out of that plant source and transforming it into something that is sweet and good," said Palms Barber.

In 2005, Sweet Beginnings began with $140,000 in seed money from the Illinois Department of Corrections. It now sells honey and skincare products under the name of Bee Love in supermarkets, hotels and airports. The company expects sales of $300,000 this year.

But Palms Barber measures success differently. Nationally, 40 percent of inmates return to prison. Only 4 percent of her workers do.

"It makes me feel great, makes me feel like a good father, a good person," said Futrell.

Barber said the program only gives the former inmates a push to get their life on track.

"The thing is they have the wings, they just need the support so they can take flight."

It's a business model that Brenda Palms Barber hopes to pollinate across the country.