Human Rights Day: A Focus on Criminal Justice Reform

When I think about Human Rights Day, many communities and regions of the world come to mind where the dignity, rights and freedom of human beings have been stripped or compromised and require a global call to action to resolve. The one group I feel the strongest connection to because they’re part of my everyday life is the incarcerated. And if you spend any time on social media, you know that right now in the United States prison reform is making headlines because of the #FirstStepAct. This is a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that passed easily through the U.S. House of Representatives in May. It’s currently waiting to be brought before the U.S. Senate for a vote. As with every piece of legislation, there are proponents and opponents of the bill, and both make compelling arguments for and against. Based on my years of experience working with incarcerated women, I want to tell you why I believe this bill is needed and why it’s a good first step forward. Is it ideal? No, but what I’ve learned is that change generally happens incrementally, and we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. When we do that, individuals, families and communities continue to suffer.

For the past 20 years, I’ve had the privilege to work for Televerde–a demand generation company that, for the past two decades, has provided nurtured, qualified, sales-ready leads to businesses like SAP, Marketo, and Hitachi. But it’s the “how we do this” that’s unique. You see, four of our nine contact centers are staffed by women in the Arizona State Prison. We have a fifth contact center at the women’s prison in Rockville, Indiana. There’s certainly an altruistic element to our business model, but that isn’t why it works. Our model succeeds because the women we hire are making a choice to have a better life. They want to grow; they want to learn; they want to feel valued; and they want to be successful. They just don’t know how or where to begin. Here’s what it takes: empathy, education and experience. And most of our prisons today are either not equipped or not interested in delivering this model. This is part of what the First Step Act promises to deliver.

Criminal Justice Reform Must Empower the Individual

My colleague Danielle Walker is serving her third prison sentence in Perryville. She’s currently the team lead for our Campaign Systems Team, and when she’s released one week from today, she’ll join us at our Phoenix headquarters as a supervisor on our Client Services Delivery team. How did this happen?

“My first time incarcerated I was 20-years-old. I’m 33 now. I was so broken because of my drug addiction. But by my third prison sentence, I wanted change. I knew what Televerde had done for so many women at the prison, but I was scared. I lacked confidence and didn’t think I had the chops for their program. But the women around me encouraged, supported and inspired, and Televerde made me believe I could do it. It’s intense—the training we go through to becomes sales reps, which is where we all start. Even today, I look back on my time here–how I am now versus when I came in—the transformation is amazing. But here’s the thing, Televerde sees your potential before you do, and they give you the confidence and everything you need to tap into it and fulfill it in ways you never dreamed possible.”

Danielle found support not just through job training and career opportunity, but through The Way Out, a peer lead program that provides support and tools for women to address their addictions, and the Arouet Foundation’s 3-year pre- and post-release program that helps women realize their own strengths, identify viable career paths, and establish and maintain stability and success post-incarceration. This is so important. Engagement and support during transition and beyond are fundamental to ongoing success!

My colleague, Lisa White, who works in our headquarters as a Sales Development Rep for one of our clients, shares this sentiment.

“I’ve been to Perryville twice. The first time, I came in as a hustler and I left unchanged. After hitting rock bottom (again) and falling back into my old meth habit, I was arrested. I hugged the police officer because I knew he kept me from dying—that’s the shape I was in. My second sentence was 4.5 years and it’s this time around I learned about Televerde, thanks to the girls in the yard who are always trying to encourage people to join. Like Danielle, I didn’t think I could do it. It’s tough and the training challenges you in ways that most of us have never experienced. I played it safe and began as a porter…running back and forth to get Televerde ladies coffee. Eventually I applied, was hired, then fired, recommitted to my goal, was rehired and I’ve been with them ever since. While Televerde gave me career training and opportunity, without the support I received from Arouet during and following my prison release, I wouldn’t have made it. Arouet connects with you one year before you’re scheduled to be released, and their amazing team of angels helps you manage your hurts, habits and hang-ups so that you walk out those prison gates and never return. All of us Arouet graduates are a community of mentors to this day, accountable as much to each other as we are to ourselves.”

Lisa said volunteer and mentoring opportunities, which are also part of the First Step Act, are critical to a person’s success. “Education and opportunity help you fulfill your potential, but sustaining it requires continued support from people who understand your challenges and who will lead you to healthy solutions and outcomes that meet your individual needs. There is no one-size-fits-all way of healing.”

Finally, I’d like to introduce you to Heidi Brown, also a Sales Development Rep at our corporate office.

“I, too, have been to Perryville twice. First time around, I played the game. I did what I had to and transitioned out of prison without any real resources. My only commitment was meeting my parole officer once a month and paying the required fee. I was trained simply for unskilled labor positions, and worse, I lost custody of all four of my children. I wasn’t dealing in healthy ways with any of this. With lack of focus and opportunity, and a lot of open emotional wounds, I reverted to old behaviors and ended up back in Perryville. When I stepped through those prison gates a second time, something in me longed for change. I didn’t know how or where I would find it, but I knew I wanted it. I heard about Televerde. The women seemed so much more than I could ever hope to be, but they pushed me to apply. One day I did. It’s incredibly validating when you’re hired, but nothing like when you graduate their boot camp. I am a sponge for knowledge now, with a vocabulary that still surprises me. I’ve transformed into a tech geek and I’m proud to wear my new label. I see myself differently, as someone who deserves the life I lead. And why not? I’ve earned it. But my success is a daily struggle made easier by the support I have through Arouet. They’ve taught me how to lead a life I can be proud of through their programs like mentoring, wellness and behavioral health, and life skills development and advocacy. For me, the greatest lessons have been learning how to positively reconnect with my three daughters and to move forward without my son who I lost to adoption. My girls, now teenagers, keep me focused and motivated. In my situation, it’s easy to become consumed by guilt: how I’ve let them down, not being able to give my son what I’m giving to my daughters. I’ve learned to forgive myself. I focus on what I can do today and I make every moment count in the most constructive ways I can. For my son, what I will build with him tomorrow drives me. I know when he and I reconnect, he’ll find me in good standing—a mom he can look up to. I look forward to that day.”

Heidi credits her involvement in programs like Girls in Tech and Wonder Women with helping her succeed. “Being accountable to my community is yet another reason to stay accountable to myself.” She urges prisons to make drug treatment and support groups in prison mandatory, even for people who don’t necessarily have substance abuse issues. “For the overwhelming majority of us, we’re codependent on the wrong people and that is also addictive.” More than that, she hopes all those who are incarcerated will one day exit the prison as she did: with a support group that has your back for the long-term, if not forever. “People fall down. They get back up when there’s a community around them that can relate, and whose purpose it is to make sure you never return to prison.”

I’ve written about our model extensively, most recently when I shared my vision and aspirations for our Televerde CSR platform and when we delivered a one-of-a-kind TEDx experience with our women in Perryville. I invite you to revisit both to see all that can be gained through criminal justice reform and why it needs to be a priority for everyone. You can also learn more about our partnership with the non-profit organization, Arouet Foundation, by visiting its website.

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