Redemption: An Accelerator Puts Former Inmates in the Driver's Seat

photo:  Georgios Tsichlis/shutterstock

photo:  Georgios Tsichlis/shutterstock

Criminal justice reform is a hot topic in philanthropic circles these days, and with 2.2 million individuals behind bars, there’s a lot to be done. We often focus on what’s happening at the front end of the system, and for good reason. Reforming local jail policy, sentencing and bail can route minor, nonviolent offenders away from prison and decrease overall costs.

But the “back end” of the system is just as important. How can funders reduce recidivism and give inmates second chances when they’re back in the world? This isn't a small question in an America where, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, "10,000 ex-prisoners are released from America’s state and federal prisons every week and arrive on the doorsteps of our nation's communities." 

With funders like the Ford Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation and others footing the bill, a range of nonprofit and community groups have been helping the formerly incarcerated successfully reenter society. Techniques like job training, education (including by bringing college into prisons), and even "pay for success" programs have paid off. According to Tulaine Montgomery, who leads New Profit’s Unlocked Futures program, job creation and economic opportunity are the surest ways to make those second chances stick.

    A new initiative, Unlocked Futures, is an incubator that supports, in part, formerly incarcerated social entrepreneurs who’ve turned their lives around and want to give back. “This program is a rebuke to the narrative that ‘these people’ can’t be viable business leaders,” Montgomery told me. Unlocked Futures’ first cohort includes eight entrepreneurs operating both nonprofit and for-profit ventures. They’re all united by a “double bottom line”—succeeding in their own spheres and working to end mass incarceration. They get $50,000 each, plus individualized training, coaching and workshops over the course of 16 months.

    As a venture philanthropy shop, New Profit has been supporting social entrepreneurship for a while, and leveraging the clout of many funders in the process. While the organization has always thought of entrepreneurship as a “power tool” for advancing opportunity, there’s a growing recognition that “mass incarceration is a consistent barrier to opportunity […] creating a tragic perfect storm of limited opportunity and heightened obstacles for distinct populations,” as Montgomery put it.

    Recognizing that criminal justice reform can be a big money saver—America directly spends $80 billion a year on incarceration, never mind the indirect damage it causes—New Profit “wanted to offer some value, knowing there’s been a growing movement that crosses the political aisle and economic spectrum [admitting] that the system isn’t working.”

    Unlocked Futures enjoys some high-profile backing. For one thing, it has a celebrity in its corner. Through a communications campaign called FREEAMERICA, singer John Legend has been leveraging his national platform to raise awareness (and dollars) around criminal justice issues. According to Montgomery, the timing of Legend’s advocacy aligned with New Profit’s venture and the star wanted to get on board. 

    Speaking against a job market that often locks out former inmates, Legend said, “I have seen that entrepreneurship is a viable way for formerly incarcerated individuals to build sustainable livelihoods and contribute to their communities and neighborhoods.” 

    In addition to supporting entrepreneurship, he’s raised money to break the cycle of poverty through education, and to support organizations for women and girls. This isn’t the first time Legend has partnered with New Profit. For Unlocked Futures, Legend’s involvement is part of a “very intentional communications campaign” to spread the word and influence public discourse. 

    But Legend isn’t the only big player involved. One of America’s largest corporations, Bank of America, has provided $500,000 to get things started. “We recognize that second chances for formerly incarcerated individuals are integral to building thriving economies,” said Kerry Sullivan, President of the Bank of America Charitable Foundation. “Partnering with FREEAMERICA and New Profit is one way we deploy capital to help create solutions that reduce the prison population and advance economic mobility for individuals who are re-establishing themselves in society.”

    So far, direct criminal justice reform hasn’t been a top priority for bank philanthropy. But as more financial institutions give to expand opportunity, especially in cities, it may become one. Montgomery also noted that entrepreneurship initiatives can foster employee volunteerism and mentorship when major companies get involved. 

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    This year, Unlocked Futures will focus on supporting the eight leaders in this first cohort. They include Clean Decisions, a D.C. contracting service that only hires former inmates and recently won a $150,000 contract from the city, as well as tech-driven enterprises like Flikshop, an app that lets inmates correspond with loved ones more easily, and within the rules. "People who’ve been incarcerated know what will have the greatest impact, at the lowest cost, and have the scrappiness to get it done," Montgomery said.

    But Unlocked Futures has even wider ambitions. The selection process, which relied on an advisory committee of sector leaders like The Last Mile, Homeboy Industries, and JustLeadershipUSA, drew together nearly 60 organizations led by people impacted by the criminal justice system. Montgomery wants to engage that “pipeline” in the eight cohort members’ activities and begin building a wider network. 

    She also sees the program as good way in for newcomers to criminal justice funding. “Unlocked Futures is a way for philanthropy to engage in meaningful reform investment at a very manageable entry point,” she said. Whether or not social entrepreneurship truly is the easiest way in for philanthropy, it’s hard to deny that when former inmates get stable jobs and a sense of purpose, they’re probably not returning to prison.

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