Teresa Hodge knows all too well how hard it is to rebuild a life after prison. After serving almost 5 years for money laundering and fraud, she struggled to find a job, weighed down by the stigma of incarceration that caused people and employers to look at her with mistrust.
Both in prison and as she transitioned back into normal life, her rock was her daughter Laurin, who made time to call and visit her mother regularly at Alderson Federal Prison Camp, 4 hours away in Alderson, W. Va. It was during these visits that the two, anticipating the struggle ahead for Teresa, began brainstorming a business plan for a nonprofit that would help women coming out of prison get back on their feet.
In 2012, the pair turned that business plan into Mission: Launch. Based in the Washington, D.C.–Baltimore area, the organization connects formerly incarcerated women with employment, counseling and other reentry services that can help them achieve self-sufficiency and reintegrate into society. In 2015, it began an entrepreneurship program called Mission: Launchpad to help women start businesses, effectively creating their own employment.
“With access to capital and opportunity, these women have immeasurable potential as entrepreneurs,” Teresa says.
For women returning from prison, reentering society can be almost as stressful as going to prison. Trying to find stability can seem like Sisyphean task for people coming home, as they struggle to find employers who will hire them, landlords who will rent to them and people who will trust them with a criminal record hanging over their heads. Women face particular difficulties; they have higher rates of depression, lower self-esteem and greater difficulty finding jobs than their male counterparts, research from the Sentencing Project has shown. Yet the vast majority of services are targeted towards men, according to the National Institute for Justice.
This reentry problem is large and growing. The number of women in jail is up fourteen-fold since 1970 — from 8,000 to 110,000 — compared to a four-fold increase for men, according to the Vera Project. Women now make up about a tenth of the more than 2 million people who are incarcerated in America. Another million women are on parole or probation. (About a third of the U.S. population has some kind of criminal record, according to the National Employment Law Project.)
Mission: Launch is focused on the main obstacle to self-sufficiency for the formerly incarcerated: finding a job. Yet finding work, and finding it quickly, is vital because lengthy unemployment typically sets off a chain reaction of problems for people recently released from prison, such as homelessness and crippling debt. And the financial instability caused by unemployment is one of the strongest predictors of subsequent criminal activity and recidivism.
Yet people returning from prison face very high unemployment rates. Indeed, in Mission: Launch’s Washington turf, the rate is a staggering 46 percent, according to Council for Court Excellence. That’s because the obstacles to employment are significant, even for those who committed nonviolent crimes, which describes 66 percent of women incarcerated in the U.S., according to Bureau of Justice Statistics. Time in prison can leave gaps in people’s resumes, and they often lack relevant experience and skills to compete in the job market and need training. Gaps are particularly stark when it comes to fast-changing technology skills, since people will fall well behind during multi-year prison sentences.
On top of all this, employers routinely decline to hire people with felony convictions, even if they are well qualified. Take Teresa, who was repeatedly turned down after telling employers about her felony until a friend got her a position as a paralegal. For women without connections from friends and family, a felony conviction can become an insurmountable barrier to employment.
To address this problem, Mission: Launch in 2014 founded the Rebuilding Reentry Coalition, which brings together area groups that help people returning from prison and develops software to help reentry providers coordinate better. The program hosts “hackathons” — or events where people work collectively on technology-based solutions to a problem and then create prototypes of proposed solutions — and has created several software applications.
For example, Fair Chance Employment enables governments to more efficiently enforce fair-hiring legislation for people with criminal convictions, including bans on asking about criminal convictions during initial job applications. And Clean Slate DC guides people through the process of sealing their criminal records under the D.C. Criminal Record Sealing Act of 2006.
And to help formerly incarcerated women start their own businesses, the organization in 2015 created an entrepreneurship program called Mission: Launchpad with the help of $50,000 from the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Opportunity through Entrepreneurship
For women returning from prison, entrepreneurship carries particular challenges. Already facing an employment challenge, they typically don’t have jobs to fall back on or the personal savings that most entrepreneurs use to fund a new business. Meanwhile, friends and family may not have the money or desire to help them fund a startup.
Nevertheless, entrepreneurship is a popular option, says Laurin Hodge, in large part because it gives people hope and a way to find work. Outside the Washington-Baltimore area, programs like the Prison Entrepreneurship Program and Defy Ventures say they have served hundreds of people returning from prison.
Mission: Launchpad began last year with a pilot cohort of three entrepreneurs who went through a 10-month program to learn the fundamentals of starting a business. The group took classes on securing contracts, marketing and self-promotion, finding capital and the technology skills needed to make their businesses competitive.
This pilot group was comprised of Teresa and two other entrepreneurs. After finishing the training program, one entrepreneur started an event-planning company that has recently begun hiring staff to deal with rising demand. The other launched a marketing-consulting firm, which has become full-time work for its founder. Both entrepreneurs asked not to be named, citing concerns that publicity around their criminal records could hurt their businesses.
Following the success of the pilot, the Hodges now plan to run a second cohort of 20 would-be entrepreneurs through the program, hopefully starting in the spring of 2017.
The entrepreneurship program is not intended to create multimillion-dollar companies, Laurin says. She considers it a success if participants create a side businesses that enables them to make some extra money and achieve an extra layer of financial security.
Whether or not they achieve more than a part-time gig, women returning from prison bring a real skill set to the businesses they start. “There is resilience that people who go to prison have,” Teresa says. Surviving in prison and afterward equips them to deal with the obstacles and failures entrepreneurship entails.
The Hodges have found that they, too, have a deep well of resilience. The pair wants to expand Mission: Launch’s programs, including its entrepreneurship initiative, and expand their network of criminal justice reform activists.
It could help that, in June, the Open Society Foundations named Teresa a 2016 Soros Justice Fellow. During her 18-month fellowship, she plans to focus on bridging the technology gap faced by people returning from prison and on making new technology more accessible to them. She and her daughter believe that, given a second or third chance, people will strive to better their lives after prison.
“It is unfair to permanently burden people involved with criminal justice system… after they have served their sentence and paid their debt to society,” Laurin says. That’s why she and her mother are determined to help the formerly incarcerated take advantage of opportunities to start again.