Today, Mar. 5, has been designated as #cut50’s Day of Empathy, a national day of action to generate empathy for the 2.3 million Americans incarcerated and their families. I was excited to be asked to speak at the Arizona event at the State Capitol, which got me thinking a lot about empathy. Specifically, how we define empathy and how empathy can make a difference in criminal justice reform.
The formal definition of empathy is: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present.
This means deeply understanding someone on their terms, not our own. It means embracing someone’s story without judgement and trying to put ourselves in their shoes. When felt deeply, empathy moves us to action.
Being convicted of a felony is like a scarlet letter and it carries with it some of the worst stigmas imaginable that endure forever. This is what makes it difficult for men and women to not only reintegrate back into their communities, but for our legislators to bring about substantive and wide-spread criminal justice reform (#cjreform). Those who cling to these stigmas vote. They influence public policy. We need to open their minds, change their hearts and help them understand that progressive criminal justice reform will rehabilitate individuals and create a more robust workforce, stronger families, safer communities and economic growth. The way we do this is through empathy.
Working at Televerde for 20 years has been a powerful exercise in empathy for me. Seventy percent of my colleagues are incarcerated. At our headquarters in Phoenix, more than half of us began our career on the inside. I’ve learned a lot, I’ve seen a lot and I can tell you this: the system is broken, but a solution built on empathy can fix it.
Educating on the Inside
According to the Charles Koch Institute, one in three adults in the United States currently has a criminal background. Consider also that 95% of people in prison will be released—that’s more than 650,000 people every year. They are deprived of job and career opportunities for two primary reasons: 1) They’re unskilled, 2) No one wants to hire them.
We need to provide more advanced education and skills training in prison. Specifically training and education that creates marketable skills that can lead to a meaningful and rewarding career and then open up employment opportunity after release. It’s a model that works. Here’s how I know.
Since 1994, Televerde has been providing sales training, education and career opportunity to incarcerated women at the Department of Corrections in Arizona and Indiana. The training isn’t easy. Most come to us without any business experience. In fact, many receive their GED while in prison—the minimum education level we require to work for us.
These ladies endure a rigorous six-week training program where they are schooled in business acumen, technology and IT infrastructure. This is not easy course curriculum—just ask any STEM student. By the time the training ends, they are all highly proficient in the most cutting-edge technology on the market and have mastered the hard and soft skills needed to close sales deals, communicate with senior executives at Fortune 500 companies, and collaborate with our clients’ sales and marketing teams. They transform into the most consummate business professionals and they work in this capacity every day just like you and me. See for yourself in this video with the CEO of Pulse Secure Sudhakar Ramakrishna and his Televerde-Pulse team.
Over the past 25 years, 3,000 women have been through our program, with less than 5.5% recidivism. This model delivers high ROI for everyone, especially the state of Arizona, which pays upwards of about $20K per inmate annually. Overall, Arizonians are saving $25 million per year by the government allowing us to invest in the women incarcerated at Perryville. It’s a model that works and it’s one that needs to be replicated in prisons around the country.
We can throw people in prison and have them count the days until their release. Or, we can have them use their time wisely and make investments that enable them to rebuild their lives so they don’t return through the revolving prison door. If you ask me, I think prisons should be turned into workforce development centers that offer both vocational training and business and technology education to prepare people for meaningful jobs and financial independence.
Opportunity on the Outside
If you’re in business or follow criminal justice reform, then you know the Charles Koch Institute and the Society of Human Resources Management recently called on businesses to see the 23 million women and men with criminal records as part of the broader talent pool when they asked business leaders to take a pledge to consider ALL candidates. We have to. Education without job and career opportunity will not lead to the outcomes we desire.
The key to reducing recidivism and crime is for all of us to first let go of the stigmas associated with those who have been incarcerated. There is still the thinking that these men and women are unworthy. We devalue their place in society and attach labels to them like convict, felon, thief. We think they’re uneducated and illiterate, and that they can’t be taught and skilled. They can! Every single person I’ve met in prison has a burning desire to be better than their past. It’s true. Ask any child today what he/she wants to be when they grow up. Not one will say an inmate. I don’t always know how or why people are in the situations they’re in, but I do know this: they all want to do and be better. That desire for worth and success is inherent in all of us.
My company is committed to chipping away at the stigmas attached to female incarceration so that we can elevate empathy and advance smart criminal justice reform. For Women’s History Month, we launched the #SeeMe campaign, which highlights the faces of female incarceration. We want everyone to see the faces, hear the voices and then share the stories of the women working every day to rebuild their lives and fulfill their potential. They are smart; they are knowledgeable; and they are determined to be so much more than their worst mistake. All they and the other 2.3 million Americans want is a second chance.
I hope you join me later today for #cut50’s Day of Empathy event at the Arizona State Capitol so together, we can elevate the criminal justice conversation and help further empathy for those who are incarcerated.