For many people, tech jobs are seen as a way to earn more money than in most other professions. For others, it may be their only chance out. While there is a movement to ban employers from asking whether someone has been convicted of a crime or not (called “banning the box”), many employers are reluctant to hire those who have been to jail or prison. This means that those with criminal records are often put in a position where they cannot provide for themselves or their families sufficiently.
Society as a whole is also affected. Although it varies by state, the average cost to keep someone in prison is $31,000 a year. These systemic problems are causing several organizations to team up in efforts to grant ex-convicts a second chance. Mission: Launch, which is the managing member of the Rebuilding Re-Entry Coalition, seeks to train ex-convicts and help them get jobs in the tech sector.
“Re-entry has to begin the moment you’re sentenced to prison. You’ve got to start planning to come home,” said Teresa Hodge, who co-founded Mission: Launch in 2012 with her daughter, Laurin. The elder Hodge was sentenced to 87 months in prison in 2007 for mail fraud, money laundering and interstate transportation of property obtained by fraud. The sentence was reduced to 70 months on appeal. Hodge only served 54 months in prison and six months in a halfway house before her August 2011 release.
The elder Hodge was quick to point out how incarceration affects families. “People don’t go to prison, families do,” she said. She then found out that technology could not only help her when she was released from prison, but others as well. “Technology was changing and we were being left behind. I knew I was going to have to come home and integrate technology into my life in order to play catch-up,” she said. The Hodges came up with an idea to combine two spaces that haven’t collided too often: criminal justice and civic technology.
“Mission: Launch is an anchor, a backbone to service providers who are helping people.” said the younger Hodge. “We’re at the intersection of civic engagement and civic technology to make re-entry more productive and efficient,” she continued, hoping to reduce recidivism (a person’s relapse into criminal behavior) among prior offenders. “700,000 people return from prison each year, yet many cannot get jobs,” the elder Hodge said. “Sixty-five percent re-offend. We must expand the idea of entrepreneurship to these people as well. We’ve got an opportunity, a chance, to teach skills and to build software.
Mission: Launch has hosted demo days and hackathons, and one of these apps, Fair Chance Employment, has put tech in the hands of government to enforce fair-hiring legislation for those with convictions to Clean Slate DC, which guides users through the process of sealing criminal records. Their startup accelerator for ex-convicts drew the attention of the United States Small Business Association (SBA), winning a $50,000 cash prize.
Marcus Bullock is an example of someone who benefitted from the Hodges’ efforts. Having gone to jail at the age of 15, and serving nearly eight years behind bars, Bullock turned away from a life of crime and founded Flikshop, a service that lets people send postcards to those currently in prison. “When I heard my name—telling me that someone, my family, my friends, had sent me mail—it was like winning the lottery,” Bullock said when he talked about his prison stint. “When I got out, I too was sending pictures and letters to those guys on the inside. These were the people I’d grown up with when I was a teenager. They were my friends.” Studies have shown that those who keep in touch with their families and friends while in prison have a lower recidivism rate.
Bullock received his GED at a Maryland prison and took courses in computer science and business, creating an app that converts smartphone photos and messages into postcards that are sent to over 2,000 correctional and juvenile justice facilities across America. “Mail helps inmates stay integrated with what’s going on at home. It makes the return easier, and helps the community prepare for them as well,” he said.
Bullock also mentors those who have re-entered society through the Flikshop School of Business. “They’ve got this amazing courage and faith and drive. They want to give back,” he said. “They’re even coming up with ideas that go beyond criminal justice—like creating Flikshop for military families who deal with similar communication and re-entry problems,” he added.
Other ex-convicts are creating their own efforts as well. Frederick Huston founded Pigeon.ly, a company that has raised $3 million in five seed rounds, according to Crunchbase. Pigeon.ly uses an inmate API to search for millions of inmates across county, state and correctional facilities. Both the Hodges’ and Huston were recognized at the inaugural Demo Day at the White House, where President Barack Obama praised minority startups and American innovation.
Bullock is confident that if former offenders are given a chance, it could benefit both society and the tech world. “I was a young black kid talking about launching a tech company. No one took me seriously,” Bullock said. “Today, I’ve seen the amazing work of the formerly incarcerated. I know how important entrepreneurship can be, and I want to share that with every current prisoner and every returning citizen.”