Everyone Deserves a Second Chance: Guiding Prisoners to a New Life

By: Javier Ortega-Araiza

“We’re all ex-somethings. I wish we’d ask ourselves, ‘What would it be like if I was only known for the worst thing I’ve done?’ Moved by empathy, we’d recognize people for who they are today and not for the mistakes they made yesterday. Millions with criminal histories would unlock their potential”.

Catherine Hoke, Founder and CEO, Defy Ventures

As human beings, we all have our share of mistakes. In fact, these flaws are what enable us to develop and grow into better versions of ourselves. Nevertheless, sometimes they can also leave a very tough mark in our persons and in our position in society, particularly in the case of criminals. No one is born a criminal. And we can be pretty sure that no one wants to become a criminal either. There are different circumstances, such as a difficult upbringing, lack of opportunities, or excessive pressure or influence from the outside circle, that can lead someone to pursue a life of crime.

Contrary to what we would wish, sometimes the criminal conduct of someone does not end in prison, and far from correcting the prisoner, the time behind bars only helps to make it worse. In fact, many of the world prison systems are structured so badly that they create more resentment and hatred in the individuals that end up there that rather than healing and real rehabilitation, which would be the ultimate goal of prison as a step in the process of individual reintegration into society.

In a predominantly dysfunctional system, an outstanding positive example is the Bastoy Prison, in Norway, which is planned and organised as a local community and has, among other things, a library, a church, a football field and other sports facilities, and agricultural land. The prison is run with a firm environmental and ecological commitment, and prisoners take active part in its proper preservation. Through study facilities such as the library, inmates are able to play an active role in self improvement and prepare for a life outside the prison walls. No surprise that Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world, with it being around 20%, and the Bastoy’s prison figure being even lower than that, compared to more than 50% that occurs at many prisons in the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

Precisely, it is this reoffending rate that is triggering new social enterprises to provide active solutions to help for a better reintegration of inmates into society. Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, has said that “everyone deserves a second chance. I’ve spoken about the need for companies to employ people who have criminal histories. This is ultimately good for the individuals, the business, and also good for society”. Virgin’s foundation, Virgin Unite, is involved in many initiatives in the United Kingdom to reduce recidivism rates, such as the short film series “Prison: Breaking the Cycle”, produced conjointly with The Economist. This philosophy has also inspired the creation of organisations such as The Clink Charity, that runs and operates The Clink Restaurants in the United Kingdom, which “allow prisoners to learn, engage with the public and take their first steps towards a new life”. The Clink trains and provides employment opportunities for inmates to help a productive reintegration once their sentence is over. They have generated incredible stories of people who have went on to successfully reinstate in full-time jobs in industries such as the hospitality sector after years of imprisonment. Convicts are given training in practical areas such as horticulture and harvesting as well as career workshops to help them prepare for a life in the outside world and compete in the labour market.

It is by all means a challenging process. One of the factors that has been listed and mentioned as a primary reason for reoffending rates is the lack of adequate groundwork to be ready for a productive reinstallation. To tackle this, Chicago-based entrepreneur Brian Hill has launched Edovo — Jail Education Solutions, which rents tablets to prisons to provide further opportunities for their inmates to improve themselves by having educational and vocational programming. To a company that has the vision of liberating the potential of incarcerated people and helping them to build pathways that make positive changes in their lives, their educational content powered tablets might be a great step forward. Jack Pischke, Allegheny Jail’s program administrator, in Pittsburgh, said for the Chicago Tribune that “It’s something different for the inmate population to do other than sit around, watch daytime television, and play cards”.

Nelson Mandela once said that “Education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world”. We cannot help but agree. Education opens the doors of the unknown, presenting a world full of possibility and alternatives of what we otherwise have seen. It is through education that we can explore new boundaries and learn about new prospects. When talking about prison inmates, education can help them look in new directions and unlock their potential for them to see that they also can have another chance to do things right. This combines with the fact that inmates are not untalented people. Many of them have run successfully drug or other criminal operations, such as smuggling. It is through access to a quality education that they can see that they can apply their talents to a higher purpose that also enables them to improve their lives. This is one of the premises behind Defy Ventures, which aims to “harness the natural talents of formerly incarcerated individuals and redirect them towards the creation of profitable and legal business ventures”.

Defy Ventures story is more than inspiring. Founder Catherine Hoke relates that, while on a prison tour on the state of Texas, “discovered that many of the incarcerated men she met shared key qualities with the visionary entrepreneurs she worked with every day — a relentless drive to turn a profit, the willingness to take calculated risks, charisma that turns a no into a yes, and that many gangs and drug rings are run similarly to corporations”. Through Defy Ventures, Hoke is actively engaging this people with criminal backgrounds in an entrepreneurial journey to equip them with the tools to transfer their abilities to the legitimate business world. If skills are properly transferred to the productive side of society, former inmates will reintegrate successfully and improve their lives, reoffending rates will decrease, and they will also be able to help other people in their communities who were in the similar situation to do the same. By giving former convicts the tools and foundations to implement their talents for the good, Defy Ventures is creating a life-transforming movement that can lead to a systemic reduction in crime and further opportunities for all.

The stories behind Bastoy, The Clink, Edovo, and Defy Ventures all share a similar set of beliefs and principles. They enhance the power of human potential instead of suppressing it. They do not care about where do people come from, but about where they are going. Shouldn’t we all do the same? The Guardian columnist Erwin James said in a visit to Bastoy:

“On the ferry back to the mainland I think about what I have seen and heard. Bastoy is no holiday camp. In some ways I feel as if I’ve seen a vision of the future — a penal institution designed to heal rather than harm and to generate hope instead of despair. As Nilsen (Arne, Bastoy’s Governor) asserts, justice for society demands that people we release from prison should be less likely to cause further harm or distress to others, and better equipped to live as law-abiding citizens”.

At the stillness of many governments, social enterprise might be the solution to generate that change and provide an opportunity, not only for inmates to have an improved and dignified life for themselves, but to equip them with the tools to use their talents to help construct a better society and show the power of a second chance.

Originally published at www.redefiningcapitalism.com on January 5, 2016.