To stop the revolving door between poverty and incarceration, the more than 70 million Americans who are justice-involved need access to employment that allows self-perpetuating sustainability.
When people come home from prison or jail, they face immense challenges, not the least of which is stigma, and the burden that a criminal record places on people’s ability to find safe, secure housing and gainful employment.
While millions of philanthropic dollars pour each year into reentry and job training programs — which are necessary for people in the short-term — we need to do more to address the long-term impacts of incarceration on the perpetual cycle of poverty.
This includes investing in skill-building that begins inside of prison.
Take my friend Kenny B for example. Kenny has been home and working for six years and still cannot afford healthcare or his own apartment because he works at a low-skilled job.
Despite his efforts to care for himself and his loved ones, Kenny remains reliant on government social services and charities — some of which are funded by philanthropic dollars.
As a newcomer to philanthropy and a former entrepreneur, it hasn’t taken long for me to conclude that attention to policy reform, however necessary, has been insufficient if we are truly to dismantle the systems that create and perpetuate the twin cycles of poverty and mass incarceration.
We have, for example, witnessed how campaigns like “Ban the Box” can serve to distract us from the structural underpinnings of inequality in the workplace for Black and Hispanic men.
Instead, we should be creating paths to employment and entrepreneurship which create self-sufficiency in fulfilling their needs indefinitely while building social and economic equity.
Expanding support for programs like The Last Mile, which teaches computer coding to incarcerated people, and the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, which offers leadership training and a six-month, in-prison “mini-MBA” program, have much greater impact and outcomes than many programs administered post-incarceration.
These programs provide support and mentorship after people are released and — because they are private — they function outside of government bureaucracy.
I know how difficult it is to reenter the workforce after prison. I also know the value of learning skills while in prison that can provide near seamless reentry into society.
I spent two years learning to code while serving a 12-year sentence at San Quentin State Prison.
The skills I learned not only paved a path to near-instantaneous employment when I was released but also provided enough compensation to provide the resources I needed to thrive post-incarceration.
There are another 2.2 million people languishing in prisons and jails, most of whom will return to their communities. They will need jobs, housing, and healthcare, and most will have to navigate the daunting aspects of reentry without the professional skills required to pursue employment compensation that will raise them and their families out of poverty.
To move formerly incarcerated people out of poverty, we must reduce reliance on job readiness and training programs post-incarceration that are solely administered and funded by the government — and, we must work to improve these programs and their outcomes, and push to remove the red tape that makes the reentry process difficult to navigate. Instead, we should fund and support job training and entrepreneurship programs for people that begin while they are incarcerated.
We also need to change the narrative that incarcerated people are incapable of learning and performing in high-skilled jobs. High-skilled employment not only provides income and stability, it also enables an individual to gain equity in homeownership, to access health care, and to pay college tuition.
Having equity lifts people out of poverty and brings self-perpetuating, intergenerational sustainability.
Death Row lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson tells us that “The opposite of poverty is justice.” Until system-impacted people attain true economic freedom, they will remain “have nots” and suffer all of the systemic injustices that come along with being poor — including incarceration.
Aly Tamboura is a manager in the Criminal Justice Reform program at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. He joined the organization in 2017, after working as a software engineer. Having spent over a decade of his life incarcerated, Tamboura brings both his firsthand experience with the criminal justice system and his strong technical skills to CZI to help advance critical reforms