That there is now a higher population of black men who are incarcerated or on probation than there were enslaved in 1850 might surprise you. But maybe it shouldn’t. It’s one of the many enlightening and disturbing facts in the critically-acclaimed new documentary 13th, directed by Ana DuVernay, out now on Netflix.
The film centers on a passage from the 13th Amendment which bans slavery in all its forms, “except as punishment for a crime.” This is the jumping off point, from which DuVerney directs a narrative from Jim Crow to privatized prisons.
But there is reason for hope rather than discouragement. Several social enterprises are hard at work on trying to solve parts of the problem. Here are some of the most interesting.
An EdTech startup for inmates, Edovo matches those incarcerated with tablets that can access their educational app. Inmates are able to study for the GED, learn vocational trades, and engage in cognitive therapy courses.
More than half of inmates return to prison after they’re freed and Edovo thinks it can make an impact on that with education. “We hope not only to see fewer people go back to jail or prison, but to help people personally and professionally succeed upon reintegration to society,” says Anna Ferguson, VP of operations. “A growing body of research demonstrates the correlation between educational and vocational training in correctional settings and successful re-entry, post-incarceration.”
Watch out for: After reaching over 10,000 users in their first two years of operation, Edovo expects to reach over 100,000 before the end of 2017.
Communicating with incarcerated friends and loved ones can be expensive, time consuming, and complicated. Pigeon.ly is trying to solve all of that. The company has a host of products available, including a streamlined phone call system, products for sending photos or news articles, and even an app called Prison Wives, which it bills as the first mobile app for the wives and girlfriends whose partners are locked up.
Watch out for: The company was started by a former inmate, Frederick Hutson. He served 51 months for running a highly profitable marijuana ring. If nothing else, the man knows how to run a business.
A year after reentry into society, up to 60 percent of formerly incarcerated people remain unemployed. Companies simply don’t want to hire people with a criminal record. Mission:Launch is working on fixing that in two ways: one is to build a coalition of companies and organizations that will be receptive to offering opportunities to the formerly incarcerated. The other is a 16-week education program to help former prisoners start their own businesses: if companies won’t give you a job, just make your own.
Watch out for: In June, Mission:Launch cofounder Teresa Hodge (also formerly incarcerated) was name a 2016 Soros Justice Fellow. The organization split, with 14 other fellow organizations, the $1.3 million annual prize.
The Last Mile is a tech education program for inmates started by a San Francisco venture capitalist. After giving a talk on business practices at San Quentin prison, cofounder Chris Redlitz was, “so impressed by the men’s level of business knowledge and desire to learn, he began to nurture the idea of creating a Technology Accelerator inside the prison.”
Watch out for: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg visited one of The Last Mile classes last year and has spoken out about the need for the tech sector to help solve the problem of mass incarceration.
For many people, just being accused without convicted of a felony, or even receiving a citation for underage drinking can stay on a person’s file for decades after their incident, showing up when potential employers do background checks. One of the reasons these records aren’t always expunged? It’s a complicated analog process. But one Philadelphia-based CLS lawyer has made some progress on that front. Michael Hollander’s Expungement Generator automates the process of requesting the expungement of records (92 percent of which are approved by a judge).
Watch out for: Since creating the expungement generator, there have been between 50 and 100 percent more requests granted by the city each year.