For people who have been in prison, getting and holding onto a job afterwards is tough. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, of the 50,000-plus people released from Federal prisons in 2010, one-third failed to gain any work over the four years post-release.
The overall employment rate was between 35% – 38%, meaning around two-thirds were jobless at any given time.
Those fortunate enough to get jobs were paid less than the general population, earning just 53% of the median US wage in the first few months after release; earnings were lowest for Black and Native American former prisoners.
One organization trying to improve this situation is Next Chapter, which offers people who have been in prison a route into a tech career. The scheme, a non-profit originally incubated at Slack, takes the form of an eight-month paid apprenticeship program, where people who were formerly incarcerated get taught software engineering skills.
The apprenticeship consists of three months with Hack Reactor’s software engineering bootcamp to upskill and learn what it takes to be an engineer. This is followed by five months on site with one of Next Chapter’s 15 hiring partners. During that period, apprentices work alongside the engineering teams, learning about that workplace and fine-tuning their skills.
Importantly, the entire apprenticeship is paid, offering people a living stipend so they can properly focus on the training. Next Chapter provides additional support in the form of professional coaching to help apprentices work through different challenges they might be experiencing and map out their future, both personally and professionally; and a technical director, who works side by side with the apprentice and engineering teams to facilitate learning.
Apprentices can also call on support from a peer network made up of almost 50 Next Chapter alumni, who have all completed the program and can share their experiences.
Through the apprenticeship process, 31 formerly incarcerated people have become engineers, and around 10 others are in various stages of becoming one.
Potential apprentices generally find out about the Next Chapter program through word of mouth, according to its Executive Director, Kenyatta Leal:
Our program is primarily built on partnerships. We partner with other organizations that work with people who are formerly incarcerated, who are coming home, to help them get on the right track and develop career skills they're going to need to enter the job market. It's through those conversations that we have with these organizations where word gets passed through the grapevine.
The ideal candidate is somebody who has been out of prison for about a year, has got into a stable routine since coming home, is on track with parole, and is ready for an opportunity like Next Chapter. Leal adds:
We look for those milestones in a person's life when they come home. If they haven't met those milestones yet, then we try to help get them on a trajectory where they can meet those milestones and be prepared for our program.
It doesn't matter whether they were recently let out or if somebody's been out for a decade, we're still interested in working with them if they're interested in pursuing software engineering as a career.
Leal has been working with Next Chapter since its inception in 2018. The main objective of the organization is to create a more equitable workplace, where everyone has an opportunity to thrive.
Seeing people break the cycle of incarceration in their families and the intergenerational cycle of poverty, and put themselves in a position where they can create generational wealth, is always something special for Leal, especially as he has personal experience of the situation:
I come to this work through my own incarceration. I was incarcerated for 20-plus years in the California prison system. During my time there, I worked really hard and turned my life around, and got involved in a lot of programs to help people do the same.
Leal helped found a program called The Last Mile while serving time, a software engineering training program inside the walls of the San Quentin prison:
It was through that work I got introduced to Next Chapter, and this opportunity to help people who are on the inside turn that job training into real opportunities to be engineers when they come home. I’ve been working at this intersection of justice reform and tech for the better part of a decade now.
The number of apprenticeships available via Next Chapter typically depends on the number of people its 15 hiring partners are able to take on. As far as criteria goes, the organization looks for people who have been able to demonstrate some kind of stability since they've come home. With Leal’s lived experience, he knows first-hand what that looks like:
We're looking for people who have made a commitment to do the right thing, who've done the introspective work that lends to someone not just getting out of prison but staying out of prison. For myself, I didn't go to jail just to get out. I had to learn some lessons while I was there.
One of the things we look for in candidates are people who learned from their experience and are committed to being better today than they were yesterday, and demonstrating that with their hard work, one day at a time. We look for perseverance, a positive attitude and somebody who wants to use their experience to help other people.
The overwhelming majority of the people Leal experiences every day, who want to apply to the program, have those qualities, and want to give back and work hard.
Next Chapter could soon open up its program to more people, as it has just been awarded a $2.5m grant from Salesforce. The grant will help create more opportunities for people to enter the workforce as engineers, and for Next Chapter to work with its corporate partners to develop best practices to create fair chance opportunities for everyone:
This program works and we're barely scratching the surface of what we can do if we continue to bridge this education gap and create more opportunities for people when they come home.
During his experience in prison, Leal met thousands of talented men, skilled in various blue collar trades and working hard to turn their lives around:
But we live in the information age, and today with the amount of training opportunities that folks have online, there's a huge opportunity to upskill a wide swathe of the population that's been pretty much left behind by society.
Next Chapter aims to demonstrate that people who have served time do have value, and the more opportunities they have to work, take care of their families and contribute to their communities, is a win-win for everyone. Leal says:
We spend so much time and money invested in locking people up and we don't invest in their re-entering back into the community. In the US, we've come up with a thousand ways to make sure a plastic bottle or an aluminum can gets a new life, but far too few to make sure someone leaving incarceration does. Each and every one of us plays a role in the society that people are coming home to and we can do better.