I visited a prison and so should you

Thanks to Defy Ventures for the extraordinary opportunity

Yesterday I spent my day at a correctional facility in Connecticut with a team of NYC based volunteer coaches working with Defy Ventures

From the Defy website:

“Defy’s programs harness the innate entrepreneurial talents of people with criminal histories and redirect them toward the creation of legal businesses and careers. Defy has demonstrated the effectiveness of an “inside-out” solution to the problems of recidivism and mass incarceration that allows Defy to journey with incarcerated Entrepreneurs-in-Training (EITs) from serving their prison sentence to economic independence.

Our group had the opportunity to meet ~50 women participating in Defy Ventures’ signature training program which “provides rigorous employment readiness, character development, and entrepreneurship training inside prisons, a welcome back to society that eases the reentry process, and robust post-release services including job placement, executive mentorship, startup incubation, and pitch competitions”

Highlights from the day:

Welcome + Kickoff

Upon entry to the facility, we were greeted by a tunnel of women cheering and waving their lands everywhere; similar to how professional athletes come out of the tunnel from the locker room. To get started we were given this speed networking game that had us answer questions and find women who we had answers in common with.

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Feedback sessions

Our objectives were to provide the women with resume coaching as well as advice on their personal statements and business plans. Across the board, I noticed how pragmatic these women have been with their planning. They are using effectuation to determine what resources they have and how to monetize them. This is a stark contrast from many entrepreneurs (wantrepreneurs) I meet who have a big pie in the sky idea for an app or website concept but no technical skills or plan to make it real. I appreciate how Defy teaches these women to frame their roadblocks in life in terms of educational or professional learning opportunities. It was never “woe is me” but always “I acknowledge and have learned from my mistakes and am better for it”.

Step to the line

The keystone of the day was the step to the line exercise. Coaches on one side and the women enrolled in the program on the other side. We are taken through a series of statements that highlight both the similarities and stark contrasts between the two groups and asked to step to the line if the statement is true for us. Venture Capitalist Mark Suster did a great teardown of the experience here. I kept coming back to the equality versus equity image that circulates the internet from time to time. Not everyone gets the opportunity to start from a place of success. When you are born or thrust into a bad situation the scabs stick around for a while and can really hamper your future success. I’m not saying these women played victims or anything like that but it was readily apparent how justice and opportunity are not equally distributed.

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I choose you

Towards the end, we again lined up facing the women we had been working with. This time the program participants were given tickets to hand to the coaches they felt had the most impact. It was a great affirmation that we work we were doing was not just surface level. Below is my “sweet sheet” where I traded feedback with the entrepreneurs in training along with my tickets I was given. What I appreciated most about the day is that it was not a one-way street. It wasn’t supposed business experts coming in high and might and preaching to lowly offenders. It was a two-way conversation with both parties equally benefitting. Or in Defy’s wording “transforming the lives of business leaders and people with criminal histories through their collaboration along the entrepreneurial journey”

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Facts I learned throughout the day:

  • 50%+ of incarcerated women are the victims of domestic violence.
  • The national recidivism rate is ~67%. 2 of every 3 offenders will end up back in the system. Graduates of Defy’s program have a 4.6% rate. A fifteen-fold decrease
  • In exchange for labor and work around the facility, women earn 75 cents PER DAY.
  • Fully burdened cost of feeding, housing and guarding an inmate in NYC for one year was ~167,000 in 2013
  • Defy’s program costs approximately $500 per student
  • The annual cost of a seat in school is approximately $30,000 per year
  • 90% of incarcerations are a result of plea bargain.
  • A very small percentage of women at the facility have access to computers (one woman estimated it at 5%). Computers are the singular tool of the modern worker. The fact that we are not training these people with the skills they need for reentry is unacceptable

My takeaways:

  • We have a system that puts people in time out instead of focusing on rehabilitation/re-entry to the general population. Outside of Defy Ventures most providers of IN PRISON counselings are 12 steps (alcoholics anonymous and the like) or religious in nature. We need more people, funding and organizations focused on “transforming the hustle”
  • “how would you feel if you were only known for the worst thing you have ever done?” is a question we hear often at Defy events. People with criminal histories serve their time but are met with derision or resistance when coming back from prison. Some of this harm comes from hiring processes that discriminate against people with criminal histories.
  • The US has a very perverse prison system where private corporations benefit at the expense of individuals. The incentive is, unfortunately in some cases, to incarcerate not rehabilitate and that model needs to change.
  • Often people commit crimes not out of malice but of necessity or perceiving no other options. We need a better way to care for marginalized populations

How you can help / get involved :

  1. Attend a post release business coaching event. Next ones are schedule for May 14th and June 27th.  Great way to get started with only a few hours of commitment.

  2. Attend an in prison event, next one is scheduled for  June 11th 

  3. Donate to Defy and sponsor the progress of an entrepreneur in training.