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Thursday, September 13, 2018

Slack Is Picking Up the Slack on Criminal Justice Reform

In addition to its landmark success in the world of tech, the company is now taking on a vital role in criminal justice reform.

Reentry can be an exceptionally challenging transition for citizens who are exiting the correctional system. In addition to the social stigmas associated with being a former convict, many housing and job applications routinely ask individuals to mark if they have ever been convicted of a felony. And by checking that little box, many hardworking individuals are denied the opportunity to earn a living and get their lives back on track. Luckily, one “unicorn” startup is taking matters into their own hands by launching a new program to help make it easier for former convicts to pursue fruitful careers.

Slack has already secured its place in startup history by being one of the youngest startups to reach “unicorn” status, meaning it is currently valued at over $1 billion. In addition to its landmark success in the world of tech, the company is now taking on a vital role in criminal justice reform.

When Job Training Isn’t Enough

“By a show of hands, how many of you in here have made a bad choice?” Kenyatta Leal asked last month, as he addressed a packed room at Slack’s headquarters on behalf of The Last Mile (TLM). Slack recently joined forces with TLM, a nonprofit organization that focuses on going into prisons and teaching incarcerated individuals about tech, digital communication, and business in order to prepare them for a career after their time has been served and they are released back into society. And its efforts are proving to be successful.

Without a job to sustain their livelihoods, many returning citizens end up back behind bars.

In San Quentin State Prison in California, where TLM has a presence, recidivism rates have dropped as low as 7.1 percent. That is dramatically low when compared to the rest of the state, which has a recidivism rate of 54.3 percent.

Leal continued, “Now, I want you to imagine just for a second what life would be like if you were judged the rest of your life for that bad decision.”

Leal has firsthand experience with these kinds of sweeping judgments, as he is a returning citizen himself. And it was a similar program that helped him plan for his future before he was released. In fact, the same program that helped Leal obtain job security as he reentered society has since helped over 393 other formerly incarcerated individuals, as well. And it inspired him to help others with TLM. Currently serving seven different prisons within the state of California, TLM has primarily focused on teaching its participants to code and build websites.

Each year, 650,000 people are released from prison, and 60 percent of those released have no skills to help them plan for their future career. Combine this with hiring policies that require applicants to disclose their felon status, and you have a recipe for perpetual unemployment. Without a job to sustain their livelihoods, many returning citizens end up back behind bars. However, while national recidivism rates are dismal, so far, TLM touts zero percent recidivism among its program’s participants.

According to its mission statement, TLM focuses primarily on three areas:

  • Education: The full-time program trains incarcerated students on marketable computer coding skills.
  • Experience: Through TLM Works, an in-prison workforce development program, graduates of the coding program gain work experience, earn a market wage, and create a portfolio of work.
  • Expansion: The coding program is designed to be easily replicated across the country.

Yet, even with all this training, many of those returning to society will still face obstacles when trying to obtain employment, which is where TLM’s partnership with Slack comes into play.

The Next Chapter

The reason for Leal’s visit to Slack’s headquarters in Silicon Valley was to celebrate the launch of a new partnership aimed at further reducing recidivism.

The Next Chapter gives participants in the program the opportunity to work with Slack in an apprentice role.

“The Next Chapter,” as the program is called, will not only focus on job training but also on job placement, which is a key component to guarding against recidivism. As part of the program’s launch, three returning citizens have been selected to be the first participants. Under Leal’s stewardship, each will join Slack’s quality-engineering apprenticeship, which will be split into three parts that will all take place over the course of a year. The program hopes to extend this opportunity to more returning citizens once the proof of concept is fully developed.

During the first four months, participants will learn how to code by joining the startup boot camp Hack Reactor. After the coding boot camp, each returning citizen will spend four months receiving training specific to Slack’s needs. Upon completion, they will begin working for the company. After four months on the job, Slack will decide whether they want to extend an official apprenticeship offer to participants.

When it comes to similar programs aimed at lowering recidivism rates, only training is given. But since many job applicants are still asked to inform potential employers of their criminal records, the training does very little to help break down barriers to employment. The Next Chapter, however, does give participants in the program the opportunity to work with Slack in an apprentice role, which strengthens their chances of getting hired long-term. If Slack decides not to hire one of the participants, they will help them find a job at another tech company. While Slack is the focus of The Next Chapter’s pilot program, it will, hopefully, not end with the company.

Before Slack launched its own program, it had been inspired by visiting TLM’s coding courses inside of prison. And joining Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield during his visit was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook may not have jumped onboard this new trend quite yet, but the fact that there was interest on Zuckerberg’s part is a good sign.

Coding a sought-after skill in our current job market; it’s also one that can be easily taught to those who are still incarcerated.

Not only is coding a sought-after skill in our current job market, it is also one that can be easily taught to those who are still incarcerated. And it benefits reentering citizens in many ways. In addition to gaining employment, these types of programs also keep incarcerated individuals up-to-date on the newest technology.

Prison isolates its residents from the technological advances in the rest of society, and since so much of our modern world is centered around tech, this is incredibly problematic. Without access to new technologies, many returning citizens struggle to catch up once they are released. Even something as common as an iPhone is almost completely foreign to someone who has been locked up for the last decade.

Better than Banning the Box

While many have looked to governments to fix the broken criminal justice system, it is important to remember that this is the same entity that broke the system in the first place. So instead of asking the government to require employers to ban the box or forcing them to hire reentering individuals, Slack’s new program gives some hope for the future direction of criminal justice reform.

  • Brittany is a writer for the Pacific Legal Foundation. She is a co-host of “The Way The World Works,” a Tuttle Twins podcast for families.