This Organization Welcomes the Formerly Incarcerated Back Into Society
It’s 6am and Becca Carter is sitting in her car outside of San Quentin State Prison, the oldest prison in California, located just north of San Francisco. She’s waiting to find out whether a prisoner will be released today. She knows it will be this week, but she doesn’t know which day, and she doesn’t know if the person already has a ride from the prison to take him wherever he needs to go.
“It’s really the most amazing experience to be the first person an incarcerated person befriends when they are released from prison,” says Becca. “They are so appreciative that someone is there for them, even though we’ve never met before.”
Providing a Necessary Support System
Part of the Prison University Project, Returned Citizen is a new program with a mission to grow an organized community of people impacted by the prison system. Over the last six months, the organization has provided support to approximately 75 formerly incarcerated men who have served time for felony offenses.
In many cases, the newly released “lifers” have been incarcerated for 20+ years. “It’s scary and overwhelming for these men to come out of prison and see how the world has changed, and not know how to adapt to any of it,” notes David Cowan, an Operations Manager who has been with the Prison University Project for 8 years and is one of the founders of Returned Citizen.
In addition to giving ex-prisoners a ride from prison, Returned Citizen provides each person with a “welcome kit.” The kit includes essentials, such as a mobile phone with prepaid service, a ready-to-use Clipper Card for the Bay Area transit system, a refillable water bottle, toiletries, and a towel, among other items.
The organization offers critical emotional support to the men who are re-entering society, re-engaging with family they haven’t seen in decades, and re-learning necessary life skills in a world where everyone already knows how to use the Internet and a smartphone.
Learning to Navigate a New Life
With the help of volunteers, David and Becca organize “critical adventures” for the newly released lifers. By spending half a day together, volunteers take a formerly incarcerated person on the bus, show him how to use a mobile phone, explore the neighborhood, and just make a friendly connection so the former prisoner feels comfortable calling for help if they have a question.
Beyond introducing lifers to the basics, Returned Citizen also organizes and finances fun activities, too. “Each month we try to organize an activity for participants—we’ve gone bowling, hiking, and mini golfing. We’re always looking for new opportunities to get everyone together, relax, and have a little fun,” notes David.
“By getting our new friends out into the community and helping them re-engage with society, it forces them out of their shell, which is so important for formerly incarcerated people because they’re often overwhelmed and fearful of change,” added Becca.
GoodHire’s Mission to Help
At GoodHire, we give 1% of our time, equity, and profits to nonprofit groups like Returned Citizen who are helping reentry populations and working on criminal justice reform. As a company, we recently purchased supplies and gathered our employees in a group volunteer effort toassemble 25 welcome kits to donate to Returned Citizen. When David and Becca visited our headquarters to pick up the kits, they shared more about the program and offered other ways we can volunteer to help their efforts.
Better Background Checks
As a background check company, we know that a conviction can follow people around for years, making it difficult to find employment. Which is why we also support efforts to give the formerly incarcerated and people with criminal records a fair chance at getting a job after they’ve served their time.
We’re working to change the background check system by giving job seekers with criminal records the chance to tell their own more complete story in their background check results to help employers see past the record to the real person behind it.
When a background check returns a criminal record, how will you decide what’s right for your business? Keep in mind that one in three Americans has an arrest or conviction record, and while not all offenses represent the same level of risk, it’s important to consider the circumstances around their conviction, the time that’s passed since it occurred, and any steps they’ve taken since.
Returned Citizen works mostly with lifers, who have the lowest recidivism rates, but struggle the most with “normalization” and adjusting to life on the outside. Through its programs and services, the organization is building a community of people who have been in prison and are now able to provide support to each other, as well as other newly released ex-prisoners re-entering society. We’re proud to support their efforts.