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How social entrepreneurs are tackling the criminal justice system

by Elisa Birnbaum | See Change Magazine
Wednesday, 23 May 2018 15:12 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Prisoner Jerome Boone after graduating from a computer coding program at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California April 20, 2015. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

To tackle the failings of the criminal justice system, support systems and job opportunities are essential

The United States houses 25 percent of the world’s prison population and, according to reports, spends $80 billion a year on incarceration. That means each American resident is paying around 260 dollars annually to maintain the prison system.

In California alone, 9 billion dollars is spent a year on incarceration (five times the amount spent on education) while the recidivism rate sits at 60 percent, often due to lack of opportunities for employment upon re-entry.

But venture capitalist Chris Redlitz was determined to change that. He’s one of many social entrepreneurs focused on tackling the broken prison system, with the realization that it poses numerous debilitating effects on society.

These include increasingly high costs to taxpayers and growing recidivism rates alongside the poverty and homelessness the formerly incarcerated face when they return to society looking for work (often unsuccessfully). Add to that the effects of broken and single-parent families on children and their communities.

Redlitz launched The Last Mile (TLM) in 2010 to combat those incarceration realities on the ground. What began as a simple entrepreneurship program that taught business skills and know-how to inmates, has grown into a powerful tool of change, providing employment and potential for the post-incarcerated.

In 2014, in partnership with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the California Prison Industry Authority (CalPIA), TLM launched the first computer coding curriculum in a United States prison.

Then, in 2016 they started TLMWorks, a web development studio inside San Quentin that provides graduates of TLM with jobs as software engineers. As of 2017, 240 people graduated from the program and are doing well. Over the next five years and beyond, they plan to bring their TLM-branded program to any interested facility. 

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, Molly Baldwin has been battling incarceration realities since 1988 as the founder and CEO of Roca, an organization with the apt tagline “less jail, more future”.

Roca targets high-risk young men, gang members and high-risk young mothers with one simple but exhausting mission: to disrupt the cycle of incarceration and poverty by helping those most at-risk who are not ready, willing or able to be a part of any other program.

It serves 21 communities through four locations in and around Boston - three for men and one for women. They also run a transitional employment program that offers work experience with crews, cleaning parks and streets for the state, municipalities and private companies.

And their impact is evident. In 2017, 274 men were enrolled in transitional employment, 84 percent avoided re-arrests and 226 were placed in jobs, with 76 percent remaining employed for over three months and counting.

Job creation is vital to Chicago-based Cleanslate too. Approximately 40,000 post-incarcerated individuals return each year to Illinois, with 20,000 or so converging upon Chicago, all in search of work.

The social enterprise was launched 11 years ago by the Cara organization in the aftermath of the war on drugs that saw an abundance of people coming out of the prison system with no viable employment opportunities. Employers are seldom forgiving of conviction histories.

Led by CEO Maria Kim, Cleanslate provides paid transitional jobs in neighborhood beautification projects. Interns, whose average age is 40 and who share common post-incarceration challenges, perform a range of exterior maintenance work—from sidewalk sweeping to snow removal, landscaping, garbage cleanup and graffiti removal—for which they’re paid minimum wage.

Along with Cara’s second social enterprise—a contract staffing firm - Cleanslate offers 450 new jobs a year, proving instrumental to helping Chicago battle statistics on the ground.

Like Redlitz and Baldwin, Kim is determined to change the status quo. They understand the domino effect of social challenges. And that, to tackle the failings of the criminal justice system, support systems and job opportunities are essential.

Thanks to the insightful approach of these and other social entrepreneurs, we’re witnessing significant steps toward more resilient communities across the U.S.  

Elisa Birnbaum is a journalist and the author of In the Business of Change, which profiles social entrepreneurs around the world.