Life (And Work) After Prison: Now There’s An App For That

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Editor’s Note: Despite the critical role of employment in reducing recidivism, the barriers that separate the nearly 700,000 people released from prison each year from employment opportunities can seem insurmountable. SPROKIT, a new mobile app, aims to change that.

Using the principles of gamification, the app guides reentering citizens and their parole or probation officers through the reentry process. “SPROKIT shows there is an end game,” cofounder Joe Fino explained when the company received Mobiley award for mobile innovation in 2015. “You can be successful if you follow the steps your supervisor sets out for you.”

Joe Kwong and Fino first developed ways to use gamification to produce lasting behavioral change through gamification at edtech firm Nuvana, which they cofounded in 2008. They turned their attention to reentry in 2014, and have since attracted support from Tumml and attention from Harvard Kennedy School.

We asked Joe to explain the role of gamification in reentry – and what employers should know about their important role in the process.

How has your background in gamification influenced your work at SPROKIT?

When properly applied, gamification can motivate even the most stubborn cohorts to engage in actions that might at first seem like drudgery, but that build “muscle memory” of positive behavior.

Providing the right tasks and incentives in a gamified context is a forte of our team. Points and badges are not enough. We’ve done gamified edtech via Nuvana and SPROKIT. Before that, folks on our team developed and built massively multiplayer games and pure entertainment console games, not to mention working on mainstream TV and films. Our brand of gamification is much more engaging (and dare I say, cooler) than most others.

In criminal justice, where there are all sorts of entrenched behaviors in all branches – our strategies will have profound impacts, not just on returning citizens, but on probation/parole, the courts, bail, substance abuse programs, mental health offenders, provider strategies, social service programs, and citizen involvement in their ability to provide significant incentives and see specific results on the “leaderboard.”

What’s the potential for SPROKIT to impact criminal justice reform?

Corrections and rehabilitation in the United States have been mired in old, outdated philosophies and methodologies that have resulted in our current situation: an unsustainable mass incarceration population, a prison culture that prioritizes punishment over rehabilitation, and a society that stigmatizes those that have been incarcerated even if they have paid their debt to society. All of this results in the vicious cycle of recidivism.

SPROKIT does several things to break this cycle. It emphasizes behavior change on the part of the returning citizen, it puts technology and services at their fingertips, it provides a tool for probation officers to reduce their job load and move from sanctions to care-based, and it provides data so that administrators can make better decisions. It also reveals to citizens a different view of returning prisoners by making their reentry journey more transparent, hopefully reducing stigma.

SPROKIT also verifies an individual’s location and activities, enabling court-ordered, safe, community diversions instead of incarceration. Individuals that can’t afford bail can be put on SPROKIT instead of jailed. And with long-term reentry guidance provided by SPROKIT, our hope is that recidivism will be reduced, saving taxpayers millions of dollars.

With a safer society, employers can more comfortably assist reform by providing jobs and training to returning citizens.

What is the process of reentry like for someone with a criminal record?

The biggest problem is discrimination. Housing and jobs are hard enough to get as it is. Trying to attain those things with a criminal record makes the effort even harder.

Layer on top of that elimination of food-stamp privileges, possible lack of credit record, trying to shift one’s social capital, eliminating bad habits around alcohol, drugs, or old friends, a possible lack of car, phone, a nice outfit for a job interview – and then one starts to see how difficult reentry is.

It shouldn’t even be called reentry. It’s just plain entry into society.

What should employers know about hiring the formerly incarcerated?

Bottom line, employers are the key to solving the recidivism problem. If returning citizens can’t get jobs, there’s a strong likelihood they will turn to crime again to make ends meet. To end recidivism and to keep our communities safe, employers need to offer training and jobs.

There are federal and state benefits for employers that hire formerly incarcerated people including the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit and state-level credits in California and other states.

Employers can also work with nonprofits that are training returning citizens in order to identify and vet appropriate candidates. This helps the individual, the non-profit, and the company, which benefits from the tax credit.

Eliminating candidates who have a criminal record before they have been interviewed or evaluated may result in missing out on potentially exceptional employees.

Are there benefits to hiring someone with a criminal record?

Giving a returning citizen a job is essentially providing that individual with a second chance at leading a productive life. In many of these cases, that gift is transformative.

I hear from employers who hire formerly incarcerated people that these employees tend to be the hardest working and most loyal. Why? Because the employer is giving that person more than a paycheck. They are giving a treasured opportunity that the individual knows is rare and, often, grudgingly given.

Companies like Virgin, Tesla, Genentech, Embassy Suites, and Walgreens love to wear the halo of giving back to society by hiring ex-felons – and they should.

How can employers contribute to criminal justice reform?

Top employers have the clout to change policy. There should be more incentives in the form of tax breaks for employers that hire formerly incarcerated people. More training programs. Restoration of food-stamp privileges. Education behind bars rather than just punishment.

If employers – who have the ear of Washington and Sacramento – got behind these issues, things would change much more quickly.

In the meantime, employers should connect and support entrepreneurship programs like The Last Mile and Defy Ventures with their time, and start incentive programs for employees to volunteer in those programs. This is going to take the whole village!

Joe Kwong

Joe Kwong

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Joe Kwong is cofounder and CEO of SPROKIT, which uses mobile technology and gamification to reduce recidivism. His work on documentaries, films, and new media projects has earned him nine Emmy Awards, an Academy Award, and two journalism awards.

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