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  • A common language helps ex-prisoners and their families move beyond the past to build a new life. Tweet This
  • Family support is key to helping ex-prisoners reintegrate into society. Tweet This

Each year, approximately 636,000 women and men are released from prison in the United States. As ex-prisoners return to society—some after a short sentence, others after decades of incarceration—they face myriad problems. Some struggle to find safe, affordable housing or work that pays well and accommodates responsibilities like parole meetings. Others, because of the limited availability of drug treatment programs in many prisons, relapse into substance abuse. Others come home to find that their family members no longer trust them or, worse, that they have been “replaced” in their family structure—perhaps a partner has become independent during the incarceration, or children have embraced a new father figure.

Those unable to overcome the challenges of reentering society often return to prison. According to a 2011 Pew report, four out of 10 ex-prisoners will return to state prison within three years of their release. This rate is called the recidivism rate, and it includes those who return to prison for both new offenses and technical violations of parole, such as failing a drug test or missing an appointment with a parole officer. If states could reduce their recidivism rates by 10 percent, says the Pew report, they would be able to save a combined $635 million in one year alone.

There is a significant financial incentive to reduce the recidivism rate—which some states (such as Arkansas) have tapped into by directing parole violators into special programs instead of sending them back to prison—but there is also an important societal incentive. If America is the land of opportunity, it must be the land of opportunity for everyone—including ex-prisoners. The government and public must commit to easing the burdens of reentry so that ex-prisoners are offered true second chances instead of a lifetime of cycling in and out of the criminal-justice system. Easing the burdens of reentry not only improves the lives of ex-prisoners, but also the lives of their family members, who are significantly affected by a loved one’s incarceration and reintegration. According to a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, over 5 million U.S. children have had a parent in prison.

One organization that is doing good work in meeting the needs of both ex-prisoners and their families is Defy Ventures, a non-profit headquartered in New York City that provides entrepreneurship, employment, and character-development training to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals—or what Defy calls “entrepreneurs in training” (EITs).

“We’re all ex-somethings,” says founder and CEO Catherine Hoke, who launched Defy in 2010 after developing a similar program for the Texas prison system. “I wish we’d ask ourselves, ‘What would it be like if I was only known for the worst thing I’d done?’” She continues: “Moved by empathy, we’d recognize people for who they are today and not for the mistakes they made yesterday.”

At Defy, it starts with language. “We call them entrepreneurs in training (EITs),” explains Rebecca Choi, Defy’s chief of staff, because “we believe that they are in training to do great things if they so choose and if they’re committed. They have to put in the hard work, but we provide the tools.”

One reason for Defy’s focus on entrepreneurship is that owning a business offers formerly incarcerated individuals better opportunities for upward mobility than traditional careers, which are often closed off to them because of their criminal histories (although over 100 cities and counties and 24 states have now passed ban-the-box laws, with nine states requiring private employers to comply). Participants in the program take classes about marketing, finance, and business development, receive coaching and mentoring, write business plans, and compete in Shark Tank-style business competitions for seed funding to start their new ventures. Defy helps ex-prisoners “transform their hustle” and use their skills and natural gifts to launch legal, profitable business ventures so that they can provide for themselves and their families.

If America is the land of opportunity, it must be the land of opportunity for everyone, including ex-prisoners.

But it is not all business at Defy. Another important aspect of the program is personal development. Currently incarcerated men and women and ex-prisoners take classes and receive coaching on topics such as giving a meaningful apology, forgiving others, setting boundaries, ending unhealthy relationships, and learning to give and receive love. Learning to talk about their histories and themselves in new ways—as well as how to communicate differently in the future than they have in the past—is a foundational part of the transformation process. As simple as it might seem, learning a new vocabulary helps ex-prisoners form new identities and envision new possibilities for life.

New patterns of speech can’t start and end with the ex-prisoners, however. “What we’ve noticed," says Choi, "is that a lot of times when our EITs go through our training inside and come out, they might be transformed and very enthusiastic about their future and believe in their ability to succeed, but the family members are not on the same page.” She continues:

The family members didn’t go through [the transformation]; all they know is that their loved one failed them before or repeatedly failed them in the past, so why would they want to trust them again? There’s a need to rebuild those bonds and reunify families and create an environment and common language that they can share, so that when EITs speak about their vision for the life that they want to create, their family members and loved ones can walk with them through that.

Defy offers family-focused support such as monthly conference calls and in-person events to family members. But an important part of their strategy is inviting family members to take online courses along with currently incarcerated individuals and ex-prisoners—courses such as “The Five Love Languages,” “Money and Happiness,” and “Inspiration and Encouragement.” Family members can watch the same classes and complete the same assignments as their loved ones in prison.

By having “access to some of these courses,” says Cindy Ransom, Defy’s family program coordinator, family members are “learning this new language along with their EITs. They are learning a lot of new terms; they’re learning a lot of new communication patterns and communication styles.” This is important, adds Choi, because “if a family member doesn’t know what a boundary is, it’s hard for an EIT to talk about boundaries or set boundaries. When they take those kinds of courses together, they can explore those topics together.”

According to a 2006 study by the Urban Institute, three-fourths of respondents in Illinois and Maryland (the study looked at reentry in four states) said that family support had been an important factor in keeping them from returning to prison, and those with close family relationships were more likely to be employed (and for longer) than those without close family relationships. Defy’s recidivism rate is currently at 3 percent, meaning that only 3 percent of ex-prisoners who have participated in Defy’s programming have returned to prison. This low recidivism rate speaks to the program’s success. Defy’s motto is to “transform the hustle,” but it’s doing more than that. It is also transforming families by inviting them to come alongside their formerly incarcerated loved ones, move beyond the past, and imagine a brighter future. And, as basic as that might seem, this process starts with a common language and a new vocabulary for ex-prisoners and their families.

Madison Peace works in non-profit communications and recently completed a Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship project considering how incarceration affects families. She lives in New York City.