Tech Industry Could Aid Successful Prisoner Reentry

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By Jessica DaSilva

Teresa Hodge said she won’t forget the struggles she faced trying to find work after her release from federal prison. She’d been convicted of attempted mail fraud resulting from a brochure that the company she founded sent in the mail.

By most standards, Hodge would have been a good applicant for the job to do remote bookkeeping from her home using her personal laptop and Internet connection. She is educated, a former small business owner, and has years of experience.

She said she had just started filling out the online application with her name and contact information when she reached a question asking if she had ever been convicted of a felony.

When she checked yes, Hodge said the screen went black. A message popped up, saying, “The information you provided disqualified you for this application process,” she said.

“It was obvious that it wasn’t my name or my address,” Hodge told Bloomberg BNA. “It was the fact that I checked the box that I had been to prison. It didn’t allow me to provide context of the crime or how long ago it was. It instantly disqualified me and shut down the entire application process.”

Hodge’s story highlights just one facet of the difficulties prisoners face in trying to seek employment post-release.

Now that she heads a nonprofit geared toward using technology skills and entrepreneurship as a way for former inmates to become self-sufficient, Hodge can list plenty more: prison reentry programs providing training for skills that require licenses not available to former offenders, stigma within private industries, and background checks that provide no detail other than what someone’s original charge was.

The result of those issues is an incredibly high re-offense rate, said Arthur Rizer, a national security and justice policy director for libertarian think tank R Street Institute. Rizer is also a former police officer and Justice Department prosecutor.

The current re-offense rate is about 60 percent, Rizer said. But for former offenders who find employment within 30 days, that number drops by about 20 percent.

There’s no perfect solution to the problems dogging successful reentry, but a technology-based program expanding out of Northern California’s San Quentin State Prison could potentially set a template for a new, successful model.

‘A Gushing Neck Wound’

Prison reentry programs seek to prepare former inmates for life outside prison, but often fall short because the provide training for jobs that require licensing, which many states won’t allow former offenders to obtain, Rizer said. Some of those laws even target small-time, misdemeanor charges, he said.

For example, because Rizer had his license recoked in the past, he is forever banned from being an Uber driver under Massachusetts law.

“I served in the army, I was a law professor, but I can’t drive in Massachusetts because my license was suspended for something stupid,” he said.

Unfortunately, 25 percent of all jobs in the U.S. require a license, and for some people who have criminal records, those licenses are impossible to get, Hodge said. That effectively locks former inmates out of a huge portion of the economy, she said.

So although job training programs are popular among inmates, they’re not always offering transferable skills, Hodge said.

Even inmates with college degrees or successful careers before their convictions face reentry difficulty, she said. They come up against stigma from human resources offices that immediately disqualify applicants with arrests or convictions, and background checks that fail to provide any context, Hodge said.

Background checks don’t show if charges were dropped, and often provide only the name of the charge. This can make applicants’ criminal records seem much worse than they are, she said.

And even if former offenders get jobs, they’re usually low-end, low-paying jobs with little to no upward mobility within a company, Hodge said.

Jack Donson, a prison consultant who served as an administrator with the Federal Bureau of Prisons for 23 years, said federal prisons don’t provide inmates with access to computers, which leaves them short on skills needed in the workforce and just to function in society after reentry.

Everyone is looking for a one-size-fits-all solution, but the complexity of reentry can’t be solved with one initiative, Hodge said.

Rizer agreed, saying one-solution approaches oversimplify the problem.

He cited the “ban the box” campaign as an example. Ban the box is geared toward removing the questions on job applications that disqualify applicants with criminal records like what Hodge experienced.

“Ban the box is a great idea, but it’s such a Band-Aid to a gushing neck wound,” Rizer said.

What is needed is a commitment from public and private entities to revamp reentry programs, he said.

Coding for Prisoners

One of the prime areas of opportunity lie in Silicon Valley, said Hodge. So far, the tech industry doesn’t require any formal certification or licensing, opening up the job market to anyone who has coding skills, she said.

And demand in tech far outweighs the supply of talent, said Jasmine Heiss, director of coalitions & outreach for the Coalition for Public Safety. There are about 500,000 tech jobs available, but only about 45,000 computer science graduates every year, Heiss said.

That created a perfect opportunity for venture capitalist Chris Redlitz.

The Last Mile, the San Quentin program, not only offers inmates the opportunity to train in software engineering, but allows them to work full-time, salaried coding jobs in a web development facility while serving their sentences, said Redlitz, who founded the organization.

The result is that inmates receive a wage that allows them to repay their court costs and fees while the program produces graduates who can help close the labor gap in the tech industry, he said.

That could be one reason why every graduate from The Last Mile has been met with job offers or acceptance to more advanced coding programs once they leave prison, but Redlitz credits the talent pool within prisons.

“It’s a skill many people really don’t know they have until they start learning it,” Redlitz said. “Great coders don’t necessarily have degrees.”

‘Brotherhood’

The Last Mile works in five prisons in California and will be expanding to two more in the spring, Redlitz said. Its success can be attributed to the work ethic of the participants, significantly lower re-offense rates for graduates, and its nonprofit status, he said.

Inmates who apply to the program must have at least a GED, which they can earn through other prison programs, and no infractions for at least two years, Redlitz said. The educational course is rigorous and students can be removed from the program if they fall behind or commit a new infraction while enrolled, he said.

“I think that’s why there’s so much success,” Redlitz said. “Because the bar has been set so high.”

Students learn how to code in HTML, JavaScript, CSS, and Python over the course of six months to a year, Redlitz said.

Once inmates complete the educational program, Redlitz said they’re eligible to apply to the fully functioning web development lab. Inmates in the lab spend forty hours per week designing pages on computers that replicate functionality of websites, despite not having an Internet connection, he said.

Inmates sign an oath to hold themselves and each other accountable while participating in the program, Redlitz said. And they hold it up, he added.

The programs feel like a “brotherhood or sisterhood” that becomes a community for the inmates who participate, Redlitz said.

“It has led them becoming strong employees,” he said. “It’s really life changing to them. It continues to amaze us and that’s what drives us to continue to develop this” program.

0 Percent Re-offense

When inmates who completed the educational training are accepted to the web development venture, Redlitz said they’re paid salaries comparable to web developers in Silicon Valley.

That’s easily the highest paying job in prisons across America, Heiss said. Steve Lacerdo, a former inmate and graduate of The Last Mile., went from earning 35 cents per hour working in the prison’s workshop to $17 an hour in the development lab, Lacerdo said.

His training and job experience allowed him to get a web development job after his release making $80,000 per year, he said.

“I got out and then I realized how crucial it was to my life,” Lacerdo said. “Being able to get out and have this skill set and actually get a job—it’s different because it’s a high paying job that you’re getting access to. It’s not like you’re going to make $20 an hour in the warehouse.”

Lacerdo isn’t alone, Redlitz said.

“All of the guys have multiple offers right now,” he said of the graduates seeking employment. “We’re confident that they’ll be hired.”

Having the ability to get a salaried job after graduating prison directly affected the rate of re-offense, Redlitz said. In the five years since founding The Last Mile, not a single graduate has returned to prison, he said.

Changing ‘the Face of Incarceration’

Such a successful reentry program could also reduce the stigma in human resources departments against hiring employees with felony records, Heiss said.

“Companies and corporations usually see a criminal record as a liability,” she said. “HR departments and other hiring professionals need to rethink what it means to work with people who have felony records. Some of the most creative people would otherwise be lost to society behind bars.”

The intended and unintended benefits of the program are why it was an easy choice to ask The Last Mile to redesign the Coalition’s website, she said. The Coalition relaunched its redesigned website July 27.

“It’s an emblematic piece of how we interact with people,” Heiss said. “Some of the best artists, lawyers, tech innovators are in our justice system.”

The most difficult obstacles prisoners face upon reentry are finding stable housing and employment, Heiss said. The Last Mile is changing that in California and other states are taking notice, Redlitz said.

Five other states have reached out to get similar programs started in their prison systems, he said. The Last Mile has been developing online instructional programs to scale the model nationwide, he said.

“We really believe it’s going to change the face of incarceration in America,” Redlitz said. “It’s changing the perception outside that people can change and become productive.”

Lacerdo said that’s what’s most important for people to realize about inmates.

“Most people are coming home,” he said. “This is to give them the opportunity to learn while they’re in there and have a second chance when they get out. We shouldn’t have to carry that burden for the rest of our lives.”

Progress

Change on reentry programs has been slow, partially because it’s not a problem the government alone can fix, said Rizer. Many of the bans on occupational licensing for former offenders grew out of policies to protect unionized workers, he said.

The result has been a disproportionate effect on minority populations, who make up a greater percentage of the prison population, Rizer said.

That keeps disenfranchised communities in a system of poverty where they can’t find a job and are either arrested for failure to pay their court fines, or for crimes committed when they have no other way to earn income, he said.

Those issues are attracting the attention of state lawmakers, especially in conservative states like Texas. They are looking to invest in programs that reduce expenditures in ballooning state budgets, Rizer said.

“In the past, I don’t think the right people have cared about it enough,” Rizer said. “That’s starting to change.”

The federal government has been much slower on the uptake, failing to update resources that are decades old, said Donson.

“They still teach them balancing a checkbook and resume writing off VHS tapes,” he said.

Halfway houses are also owned by private companies, which means the government can’t assess whether they’re providing adequate support to inmates looking for employment, Donson said.

That just highlights how necessary the need to rethink reentry is, Hodge said.

“When I was in prison, I never met one person who said, ‘I can’t wait to go back to prison,’” Hodge said. “I really met people who were realistic about what they were going to face and about their dreams and hopes of becoming a good member of society.”

The Bureau of Prisons asked for a list of questions in response to a request for comment from Bloomberg BNA, but did not provide answers by press time.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jessica DaSilva in Washington at jdasilva@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bna.com

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