In a recent episode of Dollars and Change, hosts Katherine Klein and Nick Ashburn welcomed a series of guests to discuss the business world’s role in reducing recidivism, creating new workforce opportunities, and opening doors for returning citizens.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Our prisons currently hold about 2.2 million people, and a growing body of research supports that this upsurge in incarceration has produced corresponding increases in recidivism. Recidivism can best be defined as a person’s relapse into criminal activity leading to further incarceration. According to the National Institute of Justice’s Statistics on Recidivism, about two-thirds of prisoners who are released are rearrested within three years.
This revolving door comes at great economic and social costs. The U.S. spends roughly 60 billion dollars per year on incarceration. We’ve learned that this issue typically leaves children living in single-family homes in poverty.
Although the conversation surrounding the economic and social implications of recidivism can go many ways, our primary focus is intervention. Specifically, what are for-profit and non-profit strategies to reduce recidivism?
We recently invited four change-makers to talk with us on Dollars & Change, WSII’s show on SiriusXM 111, Business Radio powered by the Wharton School. These change-makers are using education, employment, and mental health services to reintegrate former inmates into the community
In our first segment, we heard from Mike Brady, President and CEO of Greyston. Greyston has created an open hiring policy to create access to jobs, removing barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated individuals and others who may struggle to find employment. In other words, Greyston willingly hires anyone who comes through its doors regardless of their prison record. Prospective workers sign their names to a waiting list, and when an opening becomes available, they join Greyston’s paid apprenticeship program. By skipping background checks and interviews, Greyston is able to make both financial and personal investments in their applicants immediately. During orientation, Greyston learns if the applicant has the ability (e.g., punctuality) and mindset to enroll in their apprenticeship program and later, join the union.
Over the years, Brady has learned that applicant success is highly correlated with mindset. Some come through the doors ready for change and success. Others are not ready. As a social enterprise, Greyston is charged with the task of knowing when it is time to move to the next applicant vs. knowing when to provide the support needed to get someone to commit to a “legal life.” Greyston feels privileged to fulfill this role, to use a model that avoids onboarding costs in the service of creating opportunities for applicants, and ultimately to focus on what applicants can contribute to the society.
Max Kenner, Founder and Executive Director of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), shares this focus on former prisoners’ assets. While Greyston assists after release, BPI intervenes within the walls of prison by providing inmates with the opportunity to earn an elite, liberal arts education. This education paves the way not only to successful reintegration but ultimately leads to meaningful and profitable careers. The Bard Initiative ditches the deficit model, ignores talks of personal limitations, and regularly witnesses their students rising to the occasion.
Max Kenner is not alone in his effort to change the relationship between educational opportunity and criminal justice. Brian Hill, CEO of Edovo, has set out to provide access to education and self-improvement tools via tablet technology. Brian was first inspired to slow this revolving door when he witnessed his father’s participation through The Bard Prison Initiative. Later, when he began work on a Social Impact Bond initiative for the largest single-site jail in Chicago, he gained additional insight into how he could create a company that works to reverse the trend of mass incarceration.
Brian quickly realized that most of prison practices were not rehabilitative. He argues that we need to make better use of prisoners’ time and provide them with opportunities to make decisions. Prisoners spend the majority of their time watching daytime television and make only 6,000 decisions per day. To put this in perspective, civilians make about 35,000 decisions per day, Brian says. This state of “arrested development” leaves inmates ill-equipped for their return to society. In an effort to move toward effective rehabilitation, Edovo has created secure tablet-technology (think very basic iPads connected not to the internet, but to a secure, local, wireless network) to bring information and courses to incarcerated individuals. Prisons typically pay for Edovo’s products and services using inmate welfare funds. Rather than passively watching T.V., inmates exercise autonomy, learn to make decisions in critical ways, and engage their creativity. Edovo is using technology as a vehicle to “mass educate,” and is seeing the fruits of its labor.
So far we’ve discussed both non-profit and for-profit businesses that use both education and workforce re-entry programs to address this problem. While Father Gregory Boyle sees the immense value in these interventions, he learned that healing was an integral part of the solution. After feeling the impact of gang violence in his community, Father Boyle began to build what is now the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world. At Homeboy Industries, former gang members and
ex-convicts returning citizens can earn a paycheck while attending anger management classes and therapy.
Homeboy Industries’ admissions process consists of a drug test, orientation, and interview. While clean drug tests and orientation attendance is important, what Homeboy also requires is a desire for help. He shares his observation that jobs can decrease criminal behavior yet only healing can bring criminal behavior to a halt. The numbers support that Father Boyle’s insight is on point. The government deems Homeboy Industries successful if they annually meet a retention rate of 30%. In other words, if 30% of Homeboy members do not return to prison, they’ve been successful. Homeboy’s retention rate far exceeds this standard at 75%.
While this pervasive problem is being addressed via non-profit and for-profit companies, during and after incarceration, through the lens of multiple philosophies and many interventions, it seems there is one common thread. The commonality seems to be the belief in human potential. It is the belief in the ability for an individual to change for the better. Although this realization does not decrease the challenge that is this national epidemic, it does, undoubtedly, increase our chances of making an impact.
Episodes of “Dollars and Change” are available on demand at SiriusXM.com.
Alyssa Matteucci is a recent Drexel University graduate. She is interested in how businesses strategies can be used to facilitate positive social change.