Each year, approximately 700,000 women and men finish their prison sentences and reenter communities across the country. But here’s the thing: these men and women are often met with barriers to employment because of their criminal backgrounds. With joblessness being the No. 1 predictor of recidivism, organizations like the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and Koch Industries are urging business to rethink their hiring practices (see SHRM’s Getting Talent Back to Work initiative) and pledging to work with our government, non-profits, and academics to solve one of the biggest issues facing our country – overincarceration – through robust and meaningful criminal justice reform.
Recently, we had the pleasure of giving Jenny Kim, deputy general counsel and vice president, public policy at Koch Industries, a tour of our Televerde operations at Perryville Correctional Facility in Goodyear, Arizona. (Televerde is a global sales and marketing technology organization. Since 1994, we’ve created best-in-class sales and marketing services through a business model that hires, trains and supports incarcerated women in Arizona and Indiana.)
Jenny is no stranger to the U.S. prison system and, through her organization, has been advocating vigorously for criminal justice reform, which includes second chance employment. Following her visit, we sat down for a 1:1 interview.
Why do you think the national conversation around how we deal with the incarcerated has evolved so dramatically?
There’s more storytelling now. More Americans are speaking out with their personal stories about incarceration. Changes in sentencing laws and legislation over the past several decades have resulted in 1 in 3 Americans now with a criminal record. With a statistic like this, it’s safe to say most of us know someone who has been in jail or prison.
Individual states are also recognizing the cost of incarceration: the average per-inmate cost is about $33,000 per year. Annually, incarceration costs this country about $182 billion. We continue to invest in a model that delivers absolutely no return on investment, because the reality is that four out of every five individuals who leave prison will return at some point in the future. We’ve created a revolving prison door, which serves no one—not families, not communities and certainly not the economy. People on both sides of the political aisle are finally realizing that we have to get smart about criminal justice reform.
Why did Koch Industries decide to take on criminal justice reform?
We’re all affected by a failed system. If we don’t know someone who’s been incarcerated, we’re paying into a broken model. By fixing it, we can strengthen our communities, the economy, and families for generations. It’s a win-win-win. Now, how do we get there? We start by investing in women and men while they’re in prison and then removing barriers to meaningful work now so they can find employment after release. A prison model built on correction without rehabilitation will never produce the right outcomes for society. We need to think differently.
Today, because of criminal backgrounds, one in three Americans can’t get jobs, clothing, housing, or the right to vote. It’s dehumanizing. And it doesn’t do society any good when a good portion of the population can’t realize its own potential and make the American dream work for them. The reality is they are being set up to fail. We need to set them up for success. We lose productivity when we don’t empower and enable the most vulnerable among us. There is talent and potential in this community, and they are being intentionally overlooked because of their backgrounds. We’re going to change that.
You recently visited Televerde’s operations at Perryville prison. How did you come to learn of our company?
We were connected earlier this year through an event sponsored by the non-profit organization Arouet Foundation. I clicked immediately with Televerde’s Chief Social Responsibility Officer Michelle Cirocco because of her personal passion for criminal justice reform and also because of the work she’s been doing in this space since the late ‘90s. Televerde is a company that’s been leading in criminal justice reform long before anyone thought reform was needed. It’s incredible to see a company so committed to empowering one of the most stigmatized populations in our country. (Read about the Televerde model and results here.)
What was the experience like when you visited Televerde’s engagement centers in Perryville?
The women are incredible. They are some of the most consummate business professionals that I’ve met in my career, and it’s a sentiment felt by everyone who visits. Recently, Jeremiah Mosteller from Charles Koch Institute contributed a guest byline to share his experience following his visit to the Televerde engagement centers at Perryville. He writes, “These women so deeply understand their business and the businesses of their clients that you will quickly forget they are incarcerated.” (You can read his blog in full here.)
Their energy, enthusiasm, desire to learn, and commitment to rebuild their lives is unlike anything I’ve seen. Televerde has enabled them to tap into their human potential. Because of this, they seize every new learning opportunity that comes their way, as it’s a chance to be better than the day before. It’s remarkable. They are being taught marketable business and technology skills at the highest levels, which enable them to not only succeed in their roles while in prison, but also after they leave.
Did the visit change or evolve your thinking in any way?
Every time I encounter anyone in the world, I’m always brought back to the blind spots I have. These are the areas in my brain that are basically on auto-pilot. They’re generating unconscious biases that impact my decision-making. Most of us aren’t self-aware and because of this we have built-in assumptions that are, more often than not, wrong.
I’ve toured other prisons that have programs like this in place but not one as robust as Televerde. I say this because the women have realized their worth through the Televerde model and it shows in the way they walk, talk and interact with each other, with clients, and with those of us who visit the engagement centers. They have confidence in who they are today, and they’ve stopped letting their past mistakes define them. They’ve also figured out how to engage positively when another life crisis hits instead of reverting to self-destructive behaviors.
As I said, the Televerde women are energized and engaged. They have a purpose. They understand their “why.” They are gung-ho and I find their spirit contagious. It’s not at all what you imagine a prison setting to be like. The Televerde program is making a difference and drastically impacting their lives, which will also strengthen their families and communities when released.
What do you think businesses can learn from Televerde?
Televerde is experimenting with reentry in the best way possible by providing training, meaningful work and then full wrap-around support services through the Arouet Foundation. It’s a world-class example of how businesses and non-profits can work together to solve some of the most pressing issues of our time. It’s also a testament to how a model built on empathy, education and opportunity can inspire real change.
When we give people the chance to realize their potential, more often than not they’ll embrace that opportunity and figure out a way to make it work. Life isn’t easy. We all stumble and fall, which is why second chances are necessary. Televerde gets this, and they are showing how criminal justice reform can be delivered for the betterment of all.
I must give a shout-out to Televerde-Perryville agent Jennifer Nichols. Jennifer recently completed phase one of Arouet’s 3-Year Transition Program, which prepares women who are close to release for their transition back into society (a.k.a. smart criminal justice reform in action). In the final activity before graduating from the program, Jennifer presented on character and values and quoted me on her first slide. I smiled when I reviewed her presentation. Jennifer, from one Amelia Bedelia fan to another, I love how you’re making the most of your second chance, and I’m looking forward to watching you thrive in your career and life. Sky’s the limit for you!
Note: The images accompanying this interview are photographs of artwork created by women at Perryville Correctional.