An Educated Guest

Ep.20 | Embracing Second Chances: How Education Impacts Re-entry – with Ken Oliver & John Koufos


Guests:
Ken Oliver, Executive Director at Checkr.org
John Koufos, Executive Director at Taking Action for Good Foundation

Todd Zipper, EVP and GM of Wiley University Services and Talent Development, welcomes Ken Oliver, Executive Director at Checkr.org and John Koufos, Executive Director at Taking Action for Good Foundation. Todd, Ken, and John dive into what works and what doesn’t for the justice involved community and how we can increase access to outcomes-driven education. Listen to their conversation on your favorite podcast platform.

Topics Discussed:

  • Reimagining the re-entry experience for formerly incarcerated individuals through investments in housing, education, and job-readiness
  • The importance of transforming the prison system from one that punishes to one that reforms
  • How second chance hiring in corporate America can provide meaningful job opportunities
  • The barriers to online education in the prison system and solutions for change
  • How society can help restore a sense of belonging for formerly incarcerated individuals

Guest Bio

Ken Oliver

Ken Oliver has over 28 years of direct experience with the criminal justice system, leading and representing the justice involved in their quest to learn, manage, and restore their civil and human rights. He was a major catalyst for a landmark litigation to end the use of solitary confinement as a status-based deprivation in California. As a result of his litigation efforts, Ken’s life sentence was recalled, and he was released from prison early.

Soon after his release, Ken was hired as a paralegal for a public interest law firm and quickly became the organization’s policy director based on his work and strong advocacy efforts. During his tenure as policy director, Ken’s innovative and impact-driven approach to solving re-entry and fair-chance employment challenges made him a sought-after speaker on issues related to technology in re-entry, talent development, and the California Governor’s Future of Work Initiative.

John Koufos

John Koufos works with the public and private sector to build partnerships that lead to better employment outcomes and safer communities. Prior to his incarceration, John was a criminal trial attorney. After his release, John’s work began in New Jersey, where he helped the Christie Administration, and five former Governors implement effective, evidence-based re-entry services. He went on to design New Jersey’s nationally recognized legal program, combining staff lawyers with approximately 70 pro bono lawyers to help the re-entry community clear old tickets and warrants to restore their driver’s licenses and secure jobs.

His leadership in the business community was recognized in 2016 when NJBIZ named him one of New Jersey’s “Top 40 Under 40.” With lived experience on both sides of the criminal justice system, John has become a regular speaker, known for helping cities, states, and the federal government to optimize re-entry systems.



Podcast Transcript

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Speaker 1:
You’re listening to an Educated Guest, a podcast that brings together great minds and higher ed to delve deeper into the innovations and trends guiding the future of education and careers, hosted by the executive vice president and GM of Wiley University Services and Talent Development, Todd Zipper.

Todd Zipper:
Hello, I am Todd Zipper, host of An Educated Guest, on today’s show. I speak with Ken Oliver and John Koufos. Ken is the executive director at Checkr.org, which shares information and best practices and funds new programs to promote fair chance hiring. Before that, he was the executive direct of CROP, which takes a holistic human-centered approach to reentry and focuses on advocacy, housing and the future of work. John is the executive director at the Taking Action for Good Foundation, which looks to reform the criminal justice system and revamp, reentry and rehabilitation. With his lived experience on all sides of the criminal justice system, he helps cities, states and the federal government optimize reentry systems.

Todd Zipper:
The key takeaways from today’s discussion are first, how we can reimagine the reentry experience for formerly incarcerated individuals as a human-centered solution with investments in housing, education, and job readiness. Second, the importance of transforming the prison system from one that punishes to one that reforms. Third, how the practice of second chance hiring in corporate America can provide meaningful job opportunities when coupled with a commitment to right skilling, justice impacted individuals. Fourth, the barriers preventing access to online education within the prison system and solutions for breaking these barriers down. Lastly, the concept of civil death and ways in which our society can restore a sense of dignity and belonging for formally incarcerated individuals. Hi, Ken and John, thank you so much for being here today with me.

John Koufos:
Good to be with you.

Ken Oliver:
Great to be here.

Todd Zipper:
All right. So to start, can each of you please introduce yourself and tell us about your background and your current role. John let’s get started with you.

John Koufos:
Thanks Todd. I appreciate it. So I’m John Koufos and I work on a number of second chance hiring and re-entry projects. Currently, I’m the executive director of an organization called Taking Action for Good, which is a re-entry policy project, clemency policy project with Alice Marie Johnson who was granted clemency during the Trump administration and has become a tremendous advocate in the space. Before that I led a large project called Safe streets and Second Chances that operated in about 90 prisons and seven states, and I’ve worked with multiple presidential administration, probably 20 something governors around the country, in the healthcare, second chance hiring, education spaces.

John Koufos:
How I got my start is probably the more interesting part of the story, I’m from New Jersey although I live in DC now, right near you, I lived in Hoboken as you know, Todd, not too far from your office, and I was very successful defense lawyer in New Jersey and civil rights lawyer, but I was a completely functional alcoholic. Almost 11 years ago in the summer of 2011, I was driving drunk as I so often did, battling alcoholism for 20 years. Only this time I would nearly kill somebody. I would hurt somebody very badly and thank the Lord they were recovered and did not die and went on to lead a life and went to college, got a career, et cetera.

John Koufos:
I hurt them, and then I tried to lie my way out of it before I came off the bender, that was in 2011. For that, that would start my journey to sobriety, and to this work. But that path Todd would run right through the New Jersey Department of Corrections, a place called Bayside State Prison. So I probably am the rare person who was a fairly well known and well regarded criminal litigator and civil rights litigator, and then ended up having a door closed behind him in a cell.

Todd Zipper:
Thanks, John, really appreciate that. Ken, over to you.

Ken Oliver:
Thanks. First, I just want to say Todd, it’s an honor to be here. Thank you for having me. Great to see you again, John. My name is Ken Oliver and I’m currently the executive director at the Checkr Foundation. Checkr is a background check tech company here in San Francisco, California, and they recently formed a philanthropic foundation and wanted somebody that had direct lived experience from the criminal justice system to lead their in CSR initiative. So they chose me to do so, and I’m very honored and privileged to be able to do that.

Ken Oliver:
In reference to my own personal story, I did 24 years in several California prisons, almost nine of those you years in solitary confinement, and as a result of being in solitary confinement, which was for reading a book about George Jackson, Stanford University in a very big law firm by the name of mayor brown came and helped me execute a civil rights lawsuit against the state of California. The state capitulated, settled the case, expunged my record, and ultimately let me out of prison as a result.

Ken Oliver:
When I got out of prison, I was tapped by a public interest law firm to do some paralegal work. I’d heard about John and thought I wanted to pursue the law, and after I did that for a couple months, I soon found myself, the state policy director, working with California policy makers on criminal justice reform, economic justice, this voting rights, et cetera.

Ken Oliver:
Then shortly after that had the opportunity to become the executive director of a very young upstart organization who wanted to reimagine reentry, and after doing that for a little bit over a year, about a year and five months and a very successful campaign to convince the California legislature and the governor to give us almost 30 million to build out a residential tech centered reentry program, the first of its kind in the country, I found myself with Checkr knocking at my door and joined them in November of this year.

Todd Zipper:
Thanks, John and Ken, really appreciate you telling us your stories and providing the context for this dialogue. So the main topic I want to cover today is how do we increase access to the right type of outcomes driven education and how do we improve the career opportunities for the justice involved? But before we get started, I want to set the stage with some facts. So every everyone kind of at least has some of the information I have going in. The US incarcerates more people per capita than any other country in the world. Over 7.6 million people in America are currently incarcerated, on probation or out on parole, and 650,000 inmates are released every year. That’s pretty incredible.

Todd Zipper:
National Institute of Justice Study found that within one year of release, more than half, 57% of release prisoners are rearrested, within three years two thirds of release prisoners are rearrested, and within five years, almost 77% of release prisoners are rearrested. On the flip side, one study that with vocational training, the recidivism rate drops to approximately 30%, with an associate degree, recidivism drops to 13.7%, with a bachelor’s degree, recidivism drops to 5.6%, and I found this one interesting with a master’s degree, recidivism is basically untraceable.

Todd Zipper:
To sum this up few evidence based reforms have as much untapped potential as post-secondary education in prison. Incarcerated people who participate in such programs are 48% less likely to recidivate than those who do not. The odds of recidivism decreased as incarcerated people achieve higher levels of education as that math that I just laid out works. In addition, there’s also an economic impact that for every dollar invested in education, $4 is returned to the taxpayer. So gentlemen, first are these statistics accurate and does this paint a fair picture of the problem? Then second, is it fair to say that educating our prisoners is essential and is actually quite cost effective to the taxpayers that do this? Ken let’s get started with you?

Ken Oliver:
Yeah, that’s a great analysis of the statistics and the lay of the landscape, Todd. I think that what you laid out was accurate, but what I’d like to be able to preface, if you don’t mind is something that I think actually supersedes the numbers, and that is the reason or the purpose of prison in America. The purpose of prison in America, at least to find by California’s penal code is to punish. So when we think about education, when we think about workforce development, when we think about vocational training, that typically is not in the same conversation when you talk about prison, and I think that’s part of the problem because prisons weren’t designed to actually transform people, which is what prisons should actually be about. There’s plenty of documentaries and media reports about how Norway and other countries approach incarceration in their country. So really getting away from this punishment model, this punitive model, I think is key to being able to fix some of these problems that you laid out the via the statistics.

John Koufos:
I agree with everything Ken said, and I think one of the other statistics that isn’t there is we’re talking about an $80 billion or more industry in America. There’s a lot of payer dollars going into this and let’s just take a step back for a second. If we think of the problem you just laid out, Todd, if this were a healthcare problem. We know if this were healthcare, we know that there are certain super utilizers that are in certain communities of certain social determinants of health that are driving up the cost of healthcare. So we can hyper focus and there’s whole industry surrounding this to hyper focus on services for those populations.

John Koufos:
Correspondingly in prison with those recidivism rates being so high, we know that there’s a better than two thirds chance that the people coming out are going to commit another crime or go back in. So they are the super utilizer of the criminal justice system for whatever, we could debate the reasons that is. So when there’s a protective factor, like education being completely unutilized or underutilized, even in your best places, it’s a tremendous gap, and there’s a tremendous market, I think, but it’s a recent market, Todd. The criminal justice reform movement has obviously been around for a long time, but it really picked up steam, probably the last seven to 10 years, when people really started to understand not just the humanity behind second chances, but the business and the public safety reason, because investments in education and job readiness today will save lives and people tomorrow.

John Koufos:
I’m going to tell you a personal story. When I was locked up at Bayside State Prison, nobody asked me for money, but almost everybody asked me for a job. They wanted this dignity of work. They wanted to support themselves. They wanted to reunify with their families. They wanted to do all the things that everybody else would want to do, but they lack the connective tissue, which so often is education. I think as the market is changing, when I say the market, as we have a more enlightened criminal justice system, we have DOC directors, secretaries, commissioners, or a little more interested in this subject. There’s going to be a great space to fill here in the education world. The question is, will this be a long and sustained change or will this be subject to crime spikes and crime dips?

Todd Zipper:
So I want to take a step back and talk about reentry. Ken, I read a great quote from you that read, ‘people who haven’t lived through the reentry experience are creating the policies.’ As I mentioned earlier, every year, about 650,000 inmates are released from prison. What’s interesting about that stat is because I think a lot about colleges there’s about four million or so that are released. Some would say, college seniors is so to speak on the world here. What is the experience like for these individuals and how does preparing for and finding a job play into this?

Ken Oliver:
Sure. That’s a great question. My whole life work and experience is based on A, my horrible reentry experience, and B my call to serve others and fix what I saw as a social problem that really mirrored the prison system itself. So just real briefly, my own prison experience when I was released after serving 24 years in prison, I was sent to a transitional facility where I was placed in a five bedroom home that had 17 men living in it, sharing two bathrooms. I remember walking up to the room and there were five guys in the room and there were three sets of bunk beds, and the first thought that I had is that this isn’t any different than a county jail or a prison system. The only difference was it was out there in society.

Ken Oliver:
Then several other things happened after that caused me to realize that there were several breaks and silos in the reentry system and that people were being denied basic human dignity in housing, basic human dignity in access to the knowledge based and technology based economy. When I went to prison, Motorola flip phones had just come out, there were no such thing as smartphones, and accessing technology was problematic for me when I first came home. So when I recognized all of these different gaps and I saw some of the same challenges for my friends, I really started to reimagine what reentry looked like and I was used to be fond of telling people that I was going to build the Stanford of reentry programs, where it was high expectation, high touch, high support, and kick people out into a livable wage job where they can make $70,000 $80,000 a year and rebuild their lives.

Ken Oliver:
That’s not what exists today. What exists today are people who exit prison are usually ushered into high labor, low paying wage jobs that can’t support themselves in places like New York or the San Francisco Bay Area or Los Angeles county, which in California that represents about 80% of the prison population comes from those geographical areas.

Ken Oliver:
So I just started to think about what people needed and why we were creating this second tier of citizenship for people who had allegedly paid their debt to society. I mean, the idea of prison aside from punishment is that you pay back to the state or to the people of the state what you took or what you owe according to the criminal justice system. But the reality is that’s not true. You continue to pay once you exit the prison system and you carry around for all intents and purposes, a Scarlet letter, when you attempt to access employment, when you attempt to access education, when you attempt to access housing or any of the other social services that exist for people.

Ken Oliver:
So really I think that the way that you should approach fixing those things is first of all, creating a human centered and holistic solution, and my idea for that is what is that transitional stage look like for a guy or a woman who just spent 20 years in prison and given $100 in gate money when they’re released and dropped off at the nearest Greyhound bus station and said, “Okay, now we want you to fend for yourself.” How do we get people back to where they can viably build or rebuild their lives and then move on from the mistake that they made 20 years ago when they were 20 or 22 or 23 year years old, and have some sense of dignity and access economic mobility.

Ken Oliver:
So I think it starts out with A, providing people safe, dignified housing for the first year or two that they get out of prison just to allow them a reset period, because people need to be able to what I call detox the prison experience. Prisons in this country are some of the most toxic places on this planet. They’re usually fueled by race based gangs, toxic prison guards, toxic policies that are meant to dehumanize you and break you down. So to ask a human being who’s been subjected to that for 10, 15 or 20 years to get on a Greyhound bus and reintegrate back into society, I think is naive, and I think it contributes to a greater mass incarceration problem and recidivism.

Ken Oliver:
So I think that safe housing for people, and then really the purpose of this conversation today is providing people the job skills in the education necessary, so that way they can present a value proposition back to the community, especially with employers to access that economic mobility that will allow them the opportunity to thrive.

Todd Zipper:
Hmm. That’s great. John, I know you’ve been prolific around second chance hiring whether it is helping thousands of individuals to find gainful employment or working with government officials or even top employers. Recently, we’ve seen D&I become a focus for employers in universities, but I think it’s important to note that individuals who have been incarcerated are often still left behind and not viewed in the same way as maybe some of these other D&I populations. What do you think about all this?

John Koufos:
That’s a great question, and one that I think that as a country, we’re starting to confront a little more. I’m going to just take it back for a second. When I sat in prison, I was sitting in the law library at Bayside state Prison, and I would watch people go out to the halfway house or the parole and be sent right back because they owed $100 fine to the point pleasant borough municipal court, or some little town that they couldn’t afford to pay, the complete criminalization of poverty. I’d watch this cycle go on and on and on. For me, I tried murders and racketeering cases and things of that nature, I’d say, “How the hell could this be a thing?”

John Koufos:
I literally asked the paralegal in the prison, an inmate what was going on, and he started to explain some of those civil legal aid barriers that send people back. When I got out, I had lost my home in New Jersey, so I lived with a law school roommate again in Hoboken first till I got my own place there, and I had a chance meeting with the former governor, New Jersey, Jim McGreevey, and governor McGreevey has been tremendous in the New Jersey reentry space in particular, and we ended up building a large reentry program geared towards job readiness and workforce development.

John Koufos:
One of the things that was obvious to me in prison, and that was obvious to me in reentry is that most of the people we were serving were black. So as a DEI principle from the beginning, if we accept the obvious truth in this country, that people of color are locked up at a disproportional rate in this country, even your standard DEI program will logically bring in more people of color. So you don’t necessarily need a special cutout for people who have criminal records although that would be nice. This was looked at way back and far as 2013. There’s a great article for your listeners, again it’s pre George Floyd’s murder, it’s pre the racial reckoning that occurred because of that written by Dr. Brandi Blessett who’s now at University of Cincinnati and Dr. Marie Pryor, who is actually now at Microsoft called the Invisible Job Seeker.

John Koufos:
It talks about this very issue, right on point Todd, that this should be its own, they weren’t calling it DEI then, but it should be its own category. People with criminal record because the experience is just so unique and of course it trends, it trends along the racial disparities in our country. So incarcerated people get left behind beyond that because there’s a stigma on all of us. I’m not going to speak for Ken, I’ll speak for myself. But Ken obviously is a corporate leader now, I came from the private sector and had a very successful private sector career.

John Koufos:
I don’t care whether you’re me or Ken or a guy coming out with a GED, when you have a criminal record and you’re looking for a job, the world is a scary place because of that stigma. What I think people need to understand is what Ken’s done both with the nonprofit he led and leads as well as his work at Checkr. What I’ve done with governors and presidents across this country in the private sector, is we’ve created systems to show the country that second chance does not mean second rate, and that is really important. We hear a lot about the labor shortage today, Todd, but we don’t actually have a labor shortage, we have a second chance shortage.

John Koufos:
We don’t want, and Ken, none of us an employer to sacrifice quality. What we’re telling folks is that you can keep your standards as high as they’ve always been, but select quality candidates who just so happen to have criminal records. Back to the beginning of our conversation though, the key is up-skilling these individuals, and that comes through education which has been virtually nonexistent most of the prisons, and it comes through comprehensive whole person reentry programs like Ken was describing, like we built in New Jersey and we built in other places.

Todd Zipper:
Hmm. I know that certain employers like JP Morgan Chase, Slack and Starbucks have really announced a second fair chance hiring program. Do you see this catching on? Do you see this becoming, as you mentioned, this might be the perfect timing with such a labor shortage, especially around some of these livable way jobs, Ken, you were referring to, and maybe these companies that become so powerful and profitable will step up and invest here.

John Koufos:
Well, I hope so, and I think one of the biggest companies that did this many years ago before it was cool to do it as they say was Koch Industries, and nobody would’ve ever thought that Koch Industries was even interested in this issue and they ended up leading on it. Their great work, I think really set the tone because between their philanthropic arm and of course the corporate arm themselves, they advanced this fair chance hiring piece. With fair chance hiring, what we’re talking about is making sure that a person with a criminal record is looked at for things beyond their criminal record. Do I think it’ll catch on? I think we’re on the way.

John Koufos:
So when you start seeing the JP Morgans and the Microsofts and the CVSs of the world come together with other major corporations and form a second chance business coalition, like you’ve seen at business round table, that sends a message, that this is something that the big employers are going to invest in. So I do think that the corporate leadership driving this, so now what has to happen is now that we have America’s corporate leaders driving this and doing a great job, it’s incumbent upon the rest of us who are in the policy space, like me, who are in the reentry space, guys like Ken and other advocates, to make sure that we help these prisons and jails, supervising agencies and states deliver quality candidates to the corporations.

John Koufos:
We have to do that, because if we don’t deliver quality candidates to the corporations, and what we’re talking about is a charity program, and that’s not what this is about. Because again, second chance is not second rate. I think that the more we come together in these public private partnerships, the better we’re going to do. One thing I’ll just tell you, we’re at a time right now in this country, if Wiley Education, if you came to Ken and I said, “John, and Ken I need X amount of this type of person, we need them to have these kind of skills,” guys like Ken and I and so many other advocates can go right to the governor, right to the prison director, secretary or commissioner and say, “Hey, listen, we have an employer that wants to do this, we want to put a training program here. Will you let us?” You know what? Better than three quarters of the states, we’re going to be successful doing that if an employer wants that.

Todd Zipper:
Yeah. Well, I’ll tell you, there’s such a skill gap in sort of entry level technology jobs, and you can really work from anywhere. So it creates such a nice opportunity where no matter what state you’re coming from, you could probably work for corporations located somewhere else, given just how virtual work has become. So there’s something there I want to take with you too. Ken, I want to go over to you for a second, Checkr, the foundation or the company you’re with now has a fair chance hiring report and some of the stats are really amazing and highlights what John was just talking about, that employees maintain a 79% rate of retention and a 44% promotion rate year over year, which is 30% higher promotion rate than the total employment rate.

Todd Zipper:
So it’s really impressive as well when you think about this untapped market to a degree, it’s just really eliminating that friction that’s so systemic right now in the system. Could you maybe talk a little bit about more, the fair chance hiring report and what you’ve learned from this?

Ken Oliver:
Sure. Well, I guess I’d first like to say that most definitely this is a possible solution to the things that you mentioned, the talent shortage and the great resignation, but I want to make sure that we’re solving for the right problem. The notion of giving someone an opportunity to rebuild their lives after incarceration or an experience with the criminal justice system, shouldn’t be based on business needs, it should be based first on the right thing to do. Then as a result of the right thing to do, then of course there are many solutions that can arrive from taking that particular stance, and one of those is solving for some of the problems we face now, like the great resignation and filling some of the talent shortage.

Ken Oliver:
So I’d like to just preface that, that we frame it in a way that is human centered, because the reality is you mentioned earlier about the skills gap, and the skills gap is a problematic issue because on the one hand you have businesses, the second chance business coalition, and many others, I get calls every single week from tech companies and others who want to start fair chance programs. The problem and John alluded to this earlier is we don’t have the skilled talent to place people in things other than entry level jobs in most circumstances.

Ken Oliver:
So the first response that most politicians and policy makers say is, okay, well, why don’t we put programs inside prisons? And that’s great too, and that goes back to what I preface at the very beginning of this conversation is the contradiction and the tension there is that the prison system is not currently designed to transform or rehabilitate folks. So in California, when I spoke to policy makers last year about taking technology based companies like Oracle, who was interested in going into prison companies who were open to the Google and some of their certification programs going into prison, I was met by the director of corrections and the head person of rehabilitation programs for corrections, with the idea that the unions and the prison guards and the teachers unions inside prison had contracts that wouldn’t allow outside people to come in and teach and take over the education system to provide education services.

Ken Oliver:
To give you an idea of what I mean, when I say it’s not built for that, in California prisons, they’re still teaching things like lawnmower repair. They still refuse to allow technology based certification programs or access to technology in prison. So what happens in a great majority of cases people get out of prison and whatever they learned in prison, whether it’s working in the kitchen or whether it’s some arcane vocation that they’re teaching in the back of the shop somewhere that rarely transfers over to a livable wage job in society, even some of the higher credentialed vocations that they teach, they’re not certified based on industry standards that happen in the community.

Ken Oliver:
So it’s really problematic and people find themselves not able to access anything, but those lower wage jobs which don’t provide enough to be able to pay rent, don’t provide enough for you to be able to pay for transportation and all of the other things that you need. So what’s interesting about the report that we came out with is that we highlighted the fact that formerly incarcerated people are just impacted people are the most loyal, they’re the best employees, they have a low attrition rate. They show up on time, they get promoted at a faster clip.

Ken Oliver:
The reason you see that is just basic human psychology, is that when people are treated well and given an opportunity, usually they respond favorably, and then there’s this notion that if you treat people poorly, like people usually don’t respond that great. I’ve seen that even in the prison context where when you put guys in jobs that pay five to 10 cents an hour, they’re stealing everything, nail down to hustle on the side just so they can buy toothpaste and deodorant at the prison commissary, versus the guys that go into the industry jobs in prison and they make $1.50 an hour for example, and they can make $200 a month.

Ken Oliver:
Those guys are the first ones there, they skip visits with their family to work overtime on the weekend, and they are disciplinary free 90% of the time because they value that $200 a month that they’re able to get to provide the basic necessities of life. It’s really interesting because people think this is rocket science, and it’s really not. If the opportunities and pathways are provided to most people, and I’m excluding certain pieces of the population there, but for most people, then you’re going to get a great result and recidivism will reduce and people will pathway themselves in economic mobility and the life free of playing the margins, if you will.

Todd Zipper:
What really puzzles me and frustrates me is that over the last two decades, the online education has become ubiquitous and not just any kind of online education, high quality, scalable from every branded university you can imagine and upstart, exciting, new type of education providers out there and a lot of it’s free. I even interviewed someone, the CEO of a school called Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, who trains thousands of future chefs, all virtually, it’s pretty unbelievable what you can do today. So this trend, this movement has emerged over the last two decades, and it sounds like we’re still doing education the way it was done 30 years ago and as you, and this excuse that there’s a firewall or something like that, I mean, we all give away every document we have to Dropbox and every password to Apple’s key. I mean, cybersecurity is a real issue, but it seems like we’ve got great solutions here. So help me understand why we are not bringing this kind of ubiquitous online education. I mean, one thing I would think prisoners have just as involved people have, is time to actually educate.

Ken Oliver:
Well, I just want to touch real briefly and I’ll turn it over to John, about something you said earlier about policy. I flow to the notion, I really think it’s time that we pursue privatizing education and vocational opportunities with these boot camps and vocational trainings that exist out in the community into the prison system, because a prison in reality, at least most prisons should mirror a college campus rather than a place where you was punishing and having people language in a closet somewhere. So if we were able as a community to convince policy makers to say, “Hey, why don’t you let in some of these private companies that are teaching these boot camps, allow online education, allow technology?”

Ken Oliver:
Then all of a sudden you would see these educational opportunities really flourish inside prison, and people would be able to come out with marketable skills that are driven by the market and not teaching things that went out of style 60 years ago. I can’t remember the last time I met somebody who said I fixed lawn mowers for a living, and I’m not disparaging that, but I just haven’t met anybody where that was a transferable skill. So John would probably have some other things to add there.

John Koufos:
Sure. The first issue I think you have are the politics of the prison, is that the politics of the prison experience are rooted in a number of things, not the least of which is what they consider custody above all. So if custody, even though your judgment of conviction when you’re sent to prison, the mindset, you’re sent to the care custody and control of the New Jersey State Department of Corrections, I got a lot of custody and control, I don’t know how much care. I could tell you know, I took electrical trades in prison and I really did it because it was one of the air conditioned places in the joint. I wasn’t expecting to be an electrician, but at least I figured I’d learned something because I don’t know anything, and I have a whole bunch of certifications, but I never touched a wire. They gave you a book and you self-study, and obviously I know how to take a test.

John Koufos:
So I’d probably burned my house down if I wanted to change a light bulb here. Similarly, by the way, with your culinary friend, the only thing I know how to make is reservation. So I may have to hit you up for some kind of free pass for that one. But getting to the issue at hand, so the first thing you always hear of is when you talk to state prisons, that there’s a fear, that somewhere in the state prison is this like super hacker that if you give them or her access to the computer, somehow they’re going to tap into the grid and shut down the power of the town.

John Koufos:
I don’t know about Ken’s experience, but that certainly wasn’t the folks that I met at Bayside State Prison or anywhere else practicing law or any of the prisons I travel to across this country. So you have that issue. Now, there is a valid concern of course, if you had unrestricted access to the internet, people could continue criminal operations, harass victims, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, but that’s quite easily fixed with proper IT security. There’s also the other thing I hear in statehouse closed doors is some of my constituents pay for their internet why should inmates get it for free? Which again is not an argument that’s going to get us anywhere, but at least it gives some light to the problem.

John Koufos:
I’ll tell you a private conversation, I won’t tell you who it was with, but I had it in a state and I wanted to make it so this particular state could actually have internet access with appropriate secure protocols inside the prison walls. So I went to the head of the COs union first, because in this line of work, I have a lot of friends in law enforcement went to the COs union and I said, “What would it take to get the COs to buy into this?” To be honest, it was like, “Ah, we don’t want the inmates to have this, we don’t want the inmates to have that.” I said, “Well, what happens if there’s a training for your officers to become cyber security engineers?” So they’ll watch the network themselves, they’ll be trained, they’ll leave with certifications, and then like a light bulb went off. He said, “You know what? That might be something we can do.” Then of course the leader of that prison end up resigning for other reasons so now we have a new leader of that prison and we’re never going to get anywhere with that person.

John Koufos:
So I bring all that up to tell you that there is a way to do this, and I think candidly, this is a very topical podcast, Todd, because the place that’s going to drive this, if it’s done right, are the government affairs shops at the ed tech agencies. Just as the government affairs shop at other companies that provide services to prisons, push to expand in those things. Your private prison industry, your phone, your food, all of those folks have devoted a government affairs project and plan to operating in a state.

John Koufos:
So what’s going to happen is at some point there’s going to be an ed tech company that’s going, going to seize this opportunity, put a crew together to go and pick a state, not going to pick a giant state like Texas or California or Florida, or any of those.

John Koufos:
You pick a medium size state with a friendly group of folks starting at the governor’s office, preferably with its own office of OIT, office of information technology, and you build it backwards that way as a pilot. You get a third party validator, if you do it smart politically, you get the local university. If you did it in New Jersey, you’d get Rutgers School of Criminal Justice to validate the numbers, to make sure that you’re capturing good numbers and then you’d have your pilot, and then once you have your pilot, you have your market, and once you have your market, it’s off to the races.

Todd Zipper:
Is there any way that any of this can go federal in nature or is it really all state based, local based, which obviously makes it a little bit harder to scale?

John Koufos:
Well, the federal prisons only house a hundred and whatever, 50,000 60,000 inmates. Then the other problem there, I mean, Ken knows this, Ken and I doing reentry in workforce for years. A person might be from California but be housed in Georgia. So their transition is like eight Greyhound buses to get back to their home state or a plane ticket. So it’s really hard to figure services. So doing it the federal level probably won’t help. Now, what I think could work at the federal level is if they pick a type of federal facility, usually you do better with the women’s facilities for pilots like this, because women’s facilities usually less violent than men’s facilities and you could do it federally.

John Koufos:
But if you really want to do it, you really got to do like we’ve done every other policy thing from the first step back to earn your way out in New Jersey, to Mississippi’s law, allowing parole check-ins by FaceTime, and this is pre pandemic. What you got to do is you got to pick one red state and one blue state, go do it in both, so when you want to go to the rest of the red states, you say, “This is the Texas model.” When you want to go to the blue states, “This is the California model,” and that’s the way you get a it done. Ken, that’s how we’ve gotten so much progress in this space across a number of areas. But I think ed tech is going to have to realize that if they want to unlock this very lucrative market, they’re going to have to invest in it themselves, in their government affairs plans.

Todd Zipper:
One thing when you say lucrative, it concerns me a little bit as an ed tech provider, just because it feels like, I don’t know too much about this, but when Pell Grants were allowed to be used by incarcerated folks, a couple decades ago, it really led to some major issues, and I don’t have specific examples that come to mind. But I know they stopped that program even though that was really valuable in some ways, and I’m sure some folks got great education that way, but the challenge is, and I’m going to segue to Ken is that a lot of that education was not linked to a job.

Todd Zipper:
So it’s one thing to say, “Oh, I can use my Pell Grant here to get a certificate in business or something like that, but what do I do with that?” Okay, maybe I have an associate degree now and that’s where I want to segue Ken to you, and really maybe you can go a couple inches deeper on this reentry program around 21st century tech skills because that’s the kind of thing that I think goes beyond just, oh, here’s some education, but actually here’s some education and here’s a pathway to getting the right kind of job for your skills.

Ken Oliver:
Sure. So, I mentioned earlier a little bit about my own reentry experience and then I dived head first into policy and really learned a lot about the landscape around ban the box laws and talked to a lot of tech companies and others. What I realized is that there were three wheels, if you will, that needed to turn simultaneously and work together in order to make re-entry work in a meaningful way. The first thing that has to happen in the purpose of this conversation we’re having today on this podcast is talent development. That includes education, skill development, soft skills, digital literacy, those types of things.

Ken Oliver:
Then the second thing that also has to happen simultaneously is the employer development. How do you teach employers, how to make as a baseline of their inclusion practice? We were talking about DEI earlier. You really can’t have an equity and inclusion and practice if you don’t start with the most vulnerable in this society, and the most vulnerable workers in America are the 70 million people that have some type of criminal record, whether it’s in arrest record or conviction history, et cetera.

Ken Oliver:
Then I think what has to happen when you’re able to abdicate and change the narrative there, there has to be this third thing that undergirds both of those other two efforts, and that’s a robust policy initiative, both at the federal and the state level. So when we develop the model for CROP, which is a holistic and human-centered model that’s based on basically in short job corps for formerly incarcerated people. This transitional period of time that when a person exits prison, they’re able to have free housing, stipend money in their pocket, and they’re taught personal leadership development, financial literacy, digital literacy, and then spend six to nine months learning an actual hard skill that will transition them into the marketplace.

Ken Oliver:
Now, that’s the talent development piece. While they’re going through that, it’s incumbent upon us as direct service providers to do the same thing with employers and housing providers. So we actually go in and I work with Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation to go in and teach companies like Coke, like Expensify, like The Gap, like many others that are out there, the Fortune 500 that we’ve facilitated where we teach them an eight week workshop on how to onboard fair chance, talent, and create fair chance, talent programs. What’s stake holders to talk to? What type of company culture do you need? What is the nature time, nature test of the crime or person committed versus how much time is passed and whether it’s even relevant to the job?

Ken Oliver:
Then we also develop a program where we do the same thing with affordable housing providers here in the Bay Area, where we go in and we go to property management companies and housing providers and we say, “Listen, based on the efficacy and the effort of the talent, and now that they’re placed at a livable wage job, at $60,000 a year or better here in the Bay Area, we believe that this person deserves a shot to have a key at their own apartment despite their criminal history.” Then we tell the story of the person, we talk about the efficacy of the program.

Ken Oliver:
We wouldn’t have been able to design that program and create the types of partnerships we did with big tech companies if it wasn’t for policy. I took that show on the road and had hundreds of conversations with California legislatures, spoke to the governor’s office, the governor himself, and talked about innovating when it comes to human transformation and possibility, and that we need to invest in people, California spends $140,000 per person a year to keep them in a cage, and less than 2% of that money goes to higher education or workforce development programs. It’s like 85% of that money goes to correctional officers, the union, et cetera, and so forth in the administration of prisons. So it’s really turned into a racket, right?

Ken Oliver:
So I told the legislature, listen, if you give me half of that money, I can make sure a person never goes back to prison again and put them in a job where they’re contributing to the economy, et cetera. It’s the age thing that education trumps in the return on dollars cost benefit analysis. So I think it’s a combination of those three things, I don’t think you can do one without the other, because if you just do the second chance business coalition stuff, and you just do warming employers hearts, then you’re left with a problem that we have now is where is the talent that’s going to fill the pipeline when somebody’s actually ready to start a program?

Ken Oliver:
On the other side, if you do the talent piece and you don’t have a place for them to land, which is what you were speaking to Todd, then that person is through a year or two years or three years of positioning themselves with an education or some other type of certification, they have nowhere to go. So they end up back in the back of Walmart somewhere anyway, with a BA degree in philosophy or some other kind of business degree that they get. The only way that you can make both of those things happen because they’re expensive propositions, is through policy, through tax incentives through, there was one legislator I was talking to that talked about wage subsidies for a period of two or three years to help incentivize companies to hire justice impacted people. Big state budgets who are able to support innovative initiatives and pilot programs to help get people back to work in a meaningful way.

Ken Oliver:
I want to preface because there’s a lot of conversation in the space about work and it’s not just work, it’s livable age work. Because if you take the average person at 35, 40 years old who just did 15 or 20 years in prison, the real psychological and economic stressors come when a guy’s beating himself to death, getting to an eight hour or 10 hour a day job and he’s not making enough where he can pay rent. He’s not enough where he can take a girl that winked at him out to dinner. He can’t afford to put shoes on his kids’ feet because he’s not making enough money in a place like California.

Ken Oliver:
So I like to stress the livable wage piece because it’s important that we just don’t talk about, oh, I started a second chance program or a fair chance program and you put somebody in an entry level and you think that you’ve done the job. We’re talking about career ladders and access, here’s the key, access to economic mobility, and the reason that’s important, Todd, it’s an age old thing that’s happens in capitalist economies. The number one driver of incarceration in this country, mass incarceration is poverty. It’s not bad people versus good people. You’re better than him. He lives over there. It’s poverty. When people don’t have access to the middle class economy, they do a lot of different things. There are a lot of symptoms that grow from that tree. It’s substance abuse, it’s domestic violence, it’s violence, it’s robberies, it’s people reaching for things that they shouldn’t be reaching for. So those are all symptoms of something that we can fix as a society. We can fix poverty by just desegregating access to opportunity.

Todd Zipper:
This issue that we’re talking about, especially the recidivism, like you said, give me half of those dollars and I’ll make sure they never come back. We saw in the pandemic trillions of dollars get administer because there was such consensus around we need help. So there’s this massive problem we’re talking about here, and we know the return on investment is there and yet we can’t really get the massive amount of funds to get going here. It seems like I was reading up about in my home state of New York, these incredible initial, like the Barred Prison initiative and Hudson Link in New York. These seem incredible what they’re doing in prisons and almost eliminating recidivism, but it’s on like a few dozen or a few hundred folks, not hundreds of thousands. So how do we really bridge that gap?

Ken Oliver:
Well, I mean, if I can just chime in there, I mean, my favorite thing to talk about is how do we leverage technology to find solutions? You spoke about that earlier with online platforms, cohort based learning opportunities. I think that what drives the problem that you just laid out so eloquently is again, this notion that we’ve carried in this society that is a holdover from Kings England, this notion of civil death, that once you have committed a crime or you have some type of record or have done a certain thing that basically you’re dead forever, and you carry this Scarlet letter that in many cases makes people feel like they’re dead.

Ken Oliver:
I can tell you at Checkr, people who have been given a job in big tech, and big tech, your meals are free, there’s gyms in the office space, there’s nap places. I mean, people are so grateful and happy to be there, you couldn’t peel them off with 10 kitchen knives, because they’ve been given an opportunity and they feel whole, it’s about inclusion at that point. So people are really grateful for that opportunity. You talk about Bard College, you talk about the programs they have at Columbia University. When people set foot into those programs and are allowed to participate, you find a whole different human being.

Ken Oliver:
I remember I had a conversation with a woman at Stanford who ran a program called Project Remade, which was an entrepreneurship program a few years ago. I said, “Let me come over there and talk to you, I just want to do a SWOT analysis with you. What worked, what did, and what are some of the challenges that you faced?” When I got over there, she spent probably two hours just talking about the impact of people’s personality and identity for being able to tell their family and friends that they were actually in a program at Stanford University, and it was a weekend program where they were meeting with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Stanford professors, et cetera, but the identity change and the self-awareness and the feeling that I’m actually somebody I belong, I’m embraced by greater society is transformational. That’s even more important probably than the job and the money. Is how you make someone feel about themselves, the dignity that you’re able to instill by them being included versus excluded.

Todd Zipper:
It’s amazing how important a feeling of belonging is for human nature and as you mentioned, poverty doesn’t help with that at all and we’ve got to reverse that. John, any sort of reflections from you?

John Koufos:
Yeah. I mean, Ken, hit it squarely on the head there. I see it in my own life. I mean, there’s areas that I’m still excluded from, and here I’ve atoned, on the front page of national media outlets and I’ve worked every day to try to build a better system for those behind me and candidly, to make sure that folks have access to the supports they need to prevent crime. I think that civil death thing is a real thing, and what I think listeners need to understand is, all your listeners right now should think about the thing that they’re most ashamed of, whatever that is. Think about it in your own head, and then imagine if every time you tried to do something positive in your life, it was that thing that was out on front street, and you were judged from that, whatever that is.

John Koufos:
I think that is why the belonging really matters. You go on, you look at, especially in tech companies, you try to look for job openings on there and you have to go through like nine pages about culture and about how much we love everybody and all these things, you see corporate retreats and all these things. When we used to do that to New Jersey reentry corporation or any of the other programs I’ve worked for or with, guys look at me and say, “Why are you showing me this? I’m never going to be invited to a corporate retreat. I’m never going to be accepted by any of these people. None of these people are going to play hoe and hole or axe throwing with me, they’ll probably think that I’m going to attack them. Why would you show me things I have no opportunity to ever be a part of?”

John Koufos:
Thankfully, that tide is slowly turning, and I think that this tide is slowly turning. This is why it’s so important when you’re building these second chance hiring platforms, or policies that you make sure that you really grasp, that the person who never got a shot, getting that first shot is going to save you in employee turnover, it’s going to save you an employee loyalty. They’re going to stay late. They’re going to come in early, and you’re going to get people that particularly in the great resignation aren’t going to run because another employer offers them a few dollars more. These are people that will ride with you all the way, because if you give them a chance, you can pretty much guarantee you’re the only one that’s ever given them a chance for most of their life.

Todd Zipper:
Yeah. That’s pretty powerful. Before you wrap up, there was another statistic that I read that I just need to share that ultimately education does more than reduce recidivism. My understanding that it also reduces violence in prison and more something like 75%, fewer infractions than incarcerated people who are not enrolled in an educational program. I thought that was extremely powerful and reminded me also of a personal story in my own life. It was 2009, my second child was about to be born and I was experiencing stress like I can’t imagine I’ve ever had, especially with starting a business and sleepless nights. I was watching 60 Minutes and they did a special, and one of the highest risk prisons in the country in Birmingham, Alabama, around a meditation technique called the [Posinar 00:51:00] and almost within a week, I was on a plane to this site down in Georgia and going through same course that these prisoners went through because that special changed my life.

Todd Zipper:
I watched these frankly tortured souls who are mostly in for life transform and completely change who they were, how they sort of felt about themselves and their own images. Anyhow, that’s my own personal story for me, and I felt like if they could find some peace of mind in the awful circumstances that they found themselves in, I certainly could. I wish more people would know about that. I’m sure that program still exists in some way, but again, it probably, for the minority of people just like education, people aren’t getting enough of it. So I guess I’m going to walk towards my wrap up here and just give you guys the mic one last time to sort of, are there any things that you want our listeners to sort of walk away from understanding about how education can change lives, can also change our country?

Ken Oliver:
Sure. I’ll start by saying, I think what’s important is for us to understand the humanity of people that are justice impacted and are formerly incarcerated. The people that are incarcerated now are this society’s brothers, sons, uncles, fathers of all different races and creeds, 95% of the people that occupy prisons are going to come home back into the community. So that forces us to ask the question about what type of community members do we want to come back and are we utilizing and leveraging prison for those who believe in prison in a way where we’re getting a return on the investment? Because it doesn’t make sense to spend $17 billion in the case of California to lock up 90,000 people when five years ago that budget was $8 billion in the prison population was 30% higher.

Ken Oliver:
So we’re on a runaway train of investment into mass incarceration. So I would urge people to advocate to their local policy makers, to reinvest that money into community based programs, to reinvest that money in education programs, and really start to foster a conversation about the purpose of prison, because if we believe in investing in people and we believe in transformation, which should be the purpose of prison, then when people go to prison, they’ll be forced to get a GED, they’ll be forced to go to college, they’ll be forced to get a certified trade that allows them the day that they walk out of prison to pathway into economic mobility, a job and everything else that middle class America wants on a daily basis.

Ken Oliver:
So I think really getting away from and rethinking their retribution model, where we throw people away, we other them, and then we say, “Okay, let’s forget about them until they end up coming out 20 years later unprepared, unresourced and doing something crazy that we all complain about gain.” It’s like this revolving cycle of stuff of the dog chasing the tail that we do. So I would encourage a rethinking, a reimagining and getting away from the way like to other people that don’t have the same experiences or may not necessarily look like us.

Todd Zipper:
Thanks, Ken.

John Koufos:
The reason that there’s less incidences in prison where education and programming is better is because education is hope. Education is hope for a better tomorrow, right? Education is the pathway to it better tomorrow. I think that Ken, again, hits it right on the head, is that if you know that upwards 95% of everybody sitting in prison right now is coming home, it behooves you to invest in these people now. Remember some of these people never had a first chance. We talk about second chance hiring, but some of these people never had a first chance in life. I’m not saying that we should sacrifice accountability, what I’m saying is that accountability and punishment, because the deprivation of freedom is the punishment. You’re not supposed to add on dungeon like conditions or lack of mobility or brutality, that’s not to be part of your prison sentence, but it was part of all of ours. The deprivation of freedom is the punishment.

John Koufos:
I think that as you start to think about it in that context, and you start to build programs that lead to jobs, and again, as Ken says, living wage jobs in those spaces, you’re going to have a calmer population, number one, inside the prison, and you’re really going to transform our thinking from hard on crime to smart on crime, and smart on crime, candidly means soft on taxpayers in the long run as well.

Todd Zipper:
Love it. One final question. I ask this of all my guests. Part of what we love about education is that we all have of learning champions. Who has been a learning champion for you, and how has that person helped you in your life?

John Koufos:
Ken, you don’t have to say me, but you should go first.

Ken Oliver:
In my particular case, Todd, I would say there’s so many people it would be difficult for me to identify just one. What I will say, just what we were talking about dignity and giving people opportunity is that from the very first day that I got out and started doing policy and legal work for legal services for prisons with children, the ed there Dorsey Nun, took me under his wing and really gave me opportunity to flourish and believed in me and instilled faith. Since that time I’ve had so many different mentors from all across the country who saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself and have provided pathways and opportunities for me.

Ken Oliver:
So when I speak about the transformational quality of people embracing you, I’m speaking from personal experience. I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. I’ve been in the streets of some of the roughest places in California, and just the fact that people who didn’t share my life experience saw value in me and thought that I could lead or contribute in a meaningful way, has done wonders for my own sense of self and really me a new purpose in life. It’s not just me, I see that happening with a lot of different people at places like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, places like at Slack, places that like Microsoft, if you talk about Shelley Winner.

Ken Oliver:
So there’s been just been a tremendous embrace from the community at large, and I would be doing a disservice if I tried to narrow it down to like one person, because then I would get all my mentors angry, I mean for not calling them out. But the important piece, the takeaway is people recognizing my humanity and allowing me to feel dignified in the work that I do, in the life that I’m trying to rebuild for myself is probably the most important thing that we can do for people who have experienced being justice impacted in that way.

John Koufos:
This is a really tough question. I mean, the person who obviously comes to mind first is my wife, she works in our space and she works at Microsoft in a justice reform initiative and we’ve worked together on re-entry long before she had that job. I think that she opened my eyes to a world that I never thought I could be a part of. Remember, I grew up in a family father in and out of federal prison. He actually escaped from federal prison and we were on the run for years when I was a kid, grew up in poverty. So I’d have to put my wife probably number one. Professionally, I know yes for one, but again, you know, Ken and I, we just want to say we’re going to keep naming people until we run out of time.

John Koufos:
But professionally there’s really two, one is Jenny Kim, Jenny Kim was assistant general counsel at Koch Industries, she’s now at Philanthropy Roundtable. Ken knows her well, in fact, she introduced Ken and I. Jenny embraced me when I was in New Jersey and gave me the ability to operate on a national platform, and she’s become a close friend of our family and just among the most knowledgeable, warm and wonderful people in the movement.

John Koufos:
The other would be Jeffrey Korzenik. Jeff, he’s a chief investment officer at, Fifth Third Bank, an author of an amazing book, your listeners should check out called Untapped Talent, which makes the business case for second chance hiring. Untapped Talent doesn’t look at this as a charity, doesn’t look at this as a social program says, “This is the business case,” and you’ll appreciate Jeff as well, he was married in Church Square Park in Hoboken. Lisa’s Deli actually catered his wedding many years ago. We just literally on a call yesterday and he shared that story and he was married by the mayor of Hoboken who then went to jail like every other mayor of Hoboken.

Todd Zipper:
I was about to say that, good way to end it. I don’t know about that.

Ken Oliver:
John’s going to get me in trouble now because both of those people have been big mentors in my life. Now, I have outmost respect for both of them. I mean, I was just on a call with Jenny the other day, telling her how much I appreciate her mentorship and I didn’t call out the name. John, you won up me once again, I got to give it to you brother.

John Koufos:
That’s the velvet glove.

Todd Zipper:
Thank you so much for being here today, you really enlighten me, I believe you’ll enlighten our audience on really, I think one of the most important issues of our time, and if we don’t solve it, I don’t think we are the Americans that we know we can be. So until next time, this has been An Educated Guest.

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