Jason Wang is the founder and CEO of FreeWorld, a non-profit that helps the formerly incarcerated find good, high-wage jobs.
Incarceration creates insurmountable difficulties for people trying to build a career after they are released. There are very few training programs and effective rehabilitation programs across the American prison system. In today’s world, you don’t get a job by filling out an application. You get a job by getting introduced to the company. You need to understand how to use technology to navigate LinkedIn. If you’re getting released after a long time, you probably haven’t touched a smartphone, computer, or the internet—you may not even know how to type. Once you get released, you have to learn or relearn all these things. You have to build a network from scratch. And you’re labeled ex-felon or ex-offender. Simply put: you’re at a severe disadvantage and your job prospects are pretty limited.
A lack of employment is the number one reason why people end up going back to prison. The Prison Policy Initiative found that “unemployment is highest within the first two years of release, suggesting that pre- and post-release employment services are critical in order to reduce recidivism and help incarcerated people quickly integrate back into society.” Employment is the key to ending recidivism. Prisons can play a a critical role by investing more money into rehabilitation, educational programs, and skilling.
Rehabilitate people while they’re in prison and don’t make a half-hearted attempt once they’re out
Countries that focus on rehabilitating people while they’re in prison have figured it out. In Norway, rehabilitation and reintegration is the core focus of incarceration. And it shows: the recidivism rate is 20%, compared to 76.6% here in America.
True rehabilitation—education, empathy, and an emphasis on reintegration—is the exception, not the norm in American prisons. There is a popular misconception that there are classes and degrees in prison, but it rarely happens, and even more rarely happens with quality. I was incarcerated in a juvenile prison that housed 6,000 kids between the ages of 10 and 20 years old. Because you’re under the age of 18, you’re required by law to go to school. We would go into these classrooms with 30 different kids of different ages and education levels. Then they would give us crossword puzzles for class to keep us busy.
That was our “school.”
Why not give people educational programs, access to college, and other vocational training? In America, 95% of people who go to prison will end up being released at some point. What kind of neighbor do we want them to be when they come out? With true rehabilitation in our prison systems, we can give people skills and a pathway to good work—as soon as they’re released.
Change the financial incentives for prisons
What if prisons were funded by the number of people they kept out of prison? Imagine how everything would change across the board. Right now, the incentive is to lock people up and keep them in prison, not train them and teach skills for the work they can find when they leave. We could actually give the incarcerated the training they need behind bars.
One method is to create pay-for-performance programs, where prisons are funded based on the number of people they keep out of prison. You can create a baseline of recidivism metrics over a period of time and measure progress based on the number of people who end up returning over the next 10 years. If there is a drop in recidivism, prisons are provided additional funding, creating a positive feedback loop.
This might seem like an oversimplified way of thinking through an incredibly complex issue, but it highlights that our current system rewards the status quo, rather than truly keeping our communities safe and giving those in the justice system a path out. We spend $182 billion a year on the criminal justice system. Imagine if we used that money to rehabilitate people so they can truly reach their talent and potential rather than warehousing human beings?
Restructure parole and probation
We need to restructure parole and probation, starting by allowing virtual or telephone check-ins. As someone who has gone through the parole system for nine years, it’s purely set up to make you fail.
The requirements the justice system imposes on the formerly incarcerated once they’re released are onerous and time consuming. I have a student right now that has to go to a four-hour class in the middle of his week. He can’t find employment because no employer wants to hire him when he has to be gone from eight to 12 every Wednesday. He did nine years in prison. Why did he not do this while he was incarcerated? It just didn’t make any sense that it’s required for him now that he’s on the outside.
I reported to my parole office once a month. It’s always on their schedule. My parole officer would tell me the only time they had available was 2 p.m. I was always on time and often had to wait until 3:30 before I met with anyone. When I finally did meet with the parole officer, I was asked rote questions about whether I was in school or back to work—questions that could have been answered over the phone without interrupting an entire afternoon of work.
Why did I just take a half day off from work and drive an hour across town for this?
Let’s learn from and institutionalize what we did during COVID. During the pandemic, parole—like many office jobs—moved to virtual or phone check-ins. When COVID restrictions were slowly lifted, the in-person check-ins started happening again, but for what reason? We’ve proven that it worked over two years, but we’re going back to the old model, which by the way, is so incredibly capital inefficient.
My story is an example of how the red tape of parole doesn’t serve citizens or the parolee. I got a job in management consulting, where I traveled across the nation advising companies. I had to quit because they threatened to send me back to prison. Anytime that you leave the state, you have to get paperwork from your parole officer. I would give my parole officer everything that was required of me 90 days in advance: my flight, hotel, and dates of travel. Since my parole officer didn’t have time to create the paperwork, I simply wasn’t given any. I ended up getting two write ups for leaving the state to do my job. They said, “we are going to send you to jail if you do this one more time.” And so I left a six-figure job opportunity. And keep in mind, I had been on parole for nine years.
I was at risk for going back to prison for doing my job.
Part of restructuring parole and probation in a way that is pro-worker and pro-opportunity is to get rid of that red tape and supervision. Make supervision a maximum of six months or a year if you absolutely have to have it. Otherwise, it’s a huge commitment that makes finding jobs and taking opportunities more difficult. Change the financial incentives and grade the parole officers on how many people successfully transition off their caseloads. Right now, one parole officer has 100 people on the caseload. If you give them too much trouble, they send you to jail. That’s one less person on the caseload. I don’t have to worry about that person anymore.
Change the incentive, improve the system—and give those who have been in the justice system better opportunities for a path to work.