Transforming Our Prisons and Creating Comeback Stories

Tiger Woods, Steve Jobs, Kyle Maynard … we all love good comeback stories. I’m fortunate to work for a company that’s helped create 3,000 comeback stories—all incarcerated women who stepped into prison broken shells only to reenter society years later as strong, vibrant and thriving career professionals.

Four of these stories were shared recently by the women who lived them at Conscious Capitalism’s Sum & Substance experience in Phoenix. I call it an experience because an event leaves you; an experience stays with you … it changes you. I feel changed. Let me explain.

Sum & Substance brings together five business professionals to share their personal journeys to finding meaningful work. Each presenter ends their speech with a challenge to the audience that aims to spark new ideas, partnerships, ways of thinking, and opportunities. This year, Conscious Capitalism gave this premiere spot in their annual conference agenda to my company, Televerde.

Meet the Storytellers

In this order–Korbi Johnston, Sudhakar Ramakrishna, Christine Martin, Michelle Cirocco, Christin Swansinger—took the stage to share their personal journeys with incarceration. While their stories are uniquely different, what they desire is the same: they want to create a world that gives incarcerated women today and the young girls who may be incarcerated in the future hope and opportunity.

You see Korbi, Christine and Michelle began their careers with Televerde inside Arizona’s Perryville Correctional facility. Today, they are top sales leaders and executives at our company headquarters. They are proof that with a desire to change, the right support and opportunity, the human spirit can transform. And transform they have.

As CEO of Pulse Secure, Sudhakar knows about making smart business investments. And as a top Televerde customer, we’re fortunate to be one. But Sudhakar’s commitment to our company has evolved and today he makes personal investments in the women at Perryville. His story is a testament to leaders using business as a force for good.

Christin Swansinger was the fifth and final speaker. Geography kept her from attending the event in person. She’s presently incarcerated at Perryville so she filmed her piece in advance. Christin’s speech was perhaps the most emotional because of where she is in her journey today. You see Christin is being released from prison in just three weeks and she had one question for the audience, “Would you hire me?” Considering that joblessness is the biggest predictor of recidivism and business excludes this population from employment opportunities, how could this issue not be top of mind for her?

Lessons Learned

I attended the conference for two reasons: I wanted to support my colleagues and live tweet during their presentations. I accomplished the former, not the latter. I was so consumed by every story shared that I could do nothing but focus on each storyteller. I am so happy I did too. This might be the most present I’ve been for anything since the iPhone came into my life.

Here are my three takeaways from the Televerde Sum & Substance experience.

1. End the Labels: There are no worse labels than the ones we attach to women and men with criminal backgrounds; and these labels endure long after incarceration ends. In fact, they become barriers to success. Labels should help us become more aware of our self-worth, not less. Every time we ascribe a label to an individual, we either reinforce a stereotype and deprive that person of empathy and opportunity, or we lift them higher. The first step in changing how we treat people who are incarcerated is changing how we speak about them.

2. Do More Than What You Think You Can: If there’s one thing we do well in business it’s over-achieve. We need to take that same drive and overachieve for the betterment of humankind. For the past 10 quarters, Sudhakar has hosted a book club with the ladies at Perryville. He purchases books, ships them to Perryville and flies to Phoenix every quarter to discuss it. This is the CEO of a Silicon Valley tech company and he’s made it his personal mission to invest in women who are incarcerated. Ask any one of our ladies and they will tell you: Sudhakar is making a profound difference in their lives. He strengthens their self-worth, which increases their feelings of confidence and competence. We need more of this from business leaders. When we invest in society’s most disempowered, we build the next generation workforce. We transform communities. We strengthen the economy.

3. Ban the Box: Remove the barriers keeping qualified people with criminal backgrounds from entering the workforce. Commit to Christin’s challenge so that all the growth she’s done in prison isn’t for naught. Give her a second chance through meaningful employment. This is the easiest and most impactful action businesses can take on…literally today. #BantheBox, widen the lens we use to find and develop talent, then pledge to hire from this growing talent pool. (Morag Lucey contributed a guest byline for Forbes, which explores how business should lead in this area.)

I joined Televerde because of our purpose so I’m familiar with the journeys of those with whom I work. But to hear these women share their personal stories publicly was quite impactful. In this one night, my colleagues became my heroes and I realized that what we do is far greater than our company and even ourselves.

I’ll leave you with this.

Today, there are 2.3 million people in our nation’s prisons and jails—a 700% increase since the 1970s. That’s a lot of potential sitting behind bars. They will spend 5-10 years (on average) incarcerated, leaving them between 43,800 – 87,600 hours to learn marketable business skills that can help your company flourish. But today, our prison model is designed to punish, not rehabilitate, which explains why 70% will return to prison within three years following release. We need change.

So, in the spirit of the Sum & Substance experience, my challenge to business is this: let’s work together to create more than 2 million comeback stories by preparing those who are incarcerated for skilled professions and then hiring them post-release so they can live sustainably. Doing so isn’t just advantageous for them. We will also strengthen our organizations, the economy and collective humanity while solving one of the biggest problems facing our country today.

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