Society’s Slow Progression Towards Prison Reform
The $212 billion criminal justice system in the U.S. has long been controversial, and prison reform has recently gained the attention of more mainstream media sources.

After expanding 700 percent since the 1970s, the prison population is now 2.4 million people, more than the 1.9 million seniors graduating with a bachelor’s degree in the 2016-17 school year.

According to the National Institute of Justice, about 76.6 percent of prisoners return to prison after five years of release. Because of a number of factors, from limited employment options to restricted social benefits, the formerly incarcerated are greatly disadvantaged after reentering society. As a result, many have entered poverty, while most have returned to prison.

Continued exposure of justice system flaws and advocacy for prison reform has given rise to many inspirational organizations and breakthrough successes. Among these organizations are the Bard Prison Initiative, Dave’s Killer Bread and Defy Ventures.

The Bard Prison Initiative sends professors from Bard College to teach courses to incarcerated individuals. Through this approach of educating people out of crime and poverty, Bard has reduced the recidivism rate of its participants to two percent. The organization’s major breakthrough into the national spotlight was when it sent students to debate and later win against Harvard students.

Dave’s Killer Bread is a baking company founded by Dave Dahl, a formerly incarcerated individual. After leaving prison, he founded the company, soon experiencing wild success thanks to his great product and generosity. Part of the business model is employing formerly incarcerated individuals. In 2012, the company generated $53 million in revenue and employed 300 people.

Defy Ventures seeks to revitalize the lives of formerly incarcerated individuals and tap into their potential business skills. The organization works with individuals lost in the criminal justice system and helps make their entrepreneurial ideas into reality, giving them the practical knowledge, emotional support and funding to do so.

Defy Ventures’ most notable start-up is ConBody, founded by Coss Marte. After losing 70 pounds and four years of his life in prison, Marte started the “prison-style boot camp” that employs many of the exercises that prisoners do without access to a proper gym. Today, ConBody brings in 300 to 400 clients a week, while Marte has employed a few other formerly incarcerated individuals to be trainers.

As well as making societal changes to keep people out of prison in the first place, more changes must be considered to keep those who were previously incarcerated out of poverty.

Some business leaders are beginning to realize the untapped potential of the 2.4 million individuals in prison, and that many who once succeeded in crime could better use their skills in entrepreneurship. Some business leaders are beginning to change their policies to allow those with criminal histories to be hired.

Legislation could be introduced to provide education and therapy within the prisons. Without proper support and treatment, people will inevitably return to prison, as seen with current rates of recidivism.

Progress has been made in the past few years, but millions are still left behind bars for the rest of their lives, not because of a single sentence, but because the prison system does not support their abilities to re-enter society.

Henry Gao

Photo: Flickr