Can Businesses Help Fix the Incarceration Crisis?

The Tamer Center for Social Enterprise's new ReEntry Acceleration Program makes the business case for fair-chance hiring.

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Ciara Suarez.
Scott Langley

On a clear, brisk night in December, two students and a professor from the Business School cross a small courtyard, where a handful of women gather to smoke cigarettes and talk quietly, their cold breath lingering in the air. But this courtyard is different from the well-kept lawns around Columbia’s campus; here the ground is asphalt and is bordered by a tall chain-link fence topped with winding barbed wire. The volunteers from Columbia make their way through a metal detector, relinquishing phones and keys, heading to a classroom with walls of cinder block painted light blue.

Inside, the students and the professor are welcomed by a dozen women dressed almost identically in green pants and green shirts, who have been anticipating their arrival. This is Taconic Correctional Facility, a medium-security state prison for women in Bedford Hills, New York. During the semester, the MBA students have been teaching a negotiating-skills class called Getting to Yes to a group of incarcerated women, and this is the course’s final class.

For tonight, the women have been assigned to describe a negotiation experience from their past and discuss how implementing some of the techniques they learned in Getting to Yes might have helped them. Several students are eager to present, and Bridget Osborne, 54, is the first to step forward.

Federico Martino ’18.

Scott Langley

“Prior to taking this class, I lacked the skills to negotiate effectively,” she begins. “I negotiated thinking in terms of winning, which to me was getting what I wanted—the best deal at any cost.”

Osborne, a landlord of a multiple-family home, describes how, unknown to her, a former tenant ignored an electric bill until over $5,000 was due. After the tenant left, Osborne negotiated a reduction but was still stuck with a $3,000 balance. Osborne felt cheated, because the electric company never tried to contact her. “Because I was incarcerated, I felt unable to negotiate this deal effectively,” she tells the class. “I gave in, feeling like a loser.”

Osborne explains the key points she learned over the semester: develop a plan B, trade off what’s less important to you, remain patient, and step away if necessary.

“At the end of any deal, I should be able to walk away feeling good about myself and the decision I made, even if I was unable to reach a deal,” Osborne concludes.

Seven more women speak about their negotiation experiences, ranging from office deal-making to buying a car to bargaining with a son over homework. The presentations are earnest and heartfelt. “What I learned: take care of the little man,” says one woman. “When thinking about negotiation, I realized just how powerless I’ve been in the past,” says another.

After the presentations, Federico Martino ’18, who is co-teaching the class at Taconic, recaps the semester’s work and congratulates the women on all they’ve accomplished. “It has been an honor to teach you, and a wonderful experience for me to be able to learn from you,” he says. “It’s by far the best thing we’ve done during our MBA, and I’m really excited to see the things you’re going to do.”

Professor Daniel Ames leads part of Getting to Yes. Front row, left to right, Bridget Osborne and Leah Faria.

Scott Langley

An American Crisis

The Getting to Yes class is part of the School’s groundbreaking new program to address what is arguably one of the country’s biggest crises— mass incarceration. In the US, the rate of imprisonment has quadrupled in the last four decades (though in New York state it has declined by more than 30 percent since 1999), and the country has more incarcerated citizens per capita than does any other country in the world. The consequences of this are well documented: people with criminal records often have trouble getting hired, and thus the likelihood increases that upon reentry, they and their families will repeat a cycle of poverty and incarceration. Plus, with unemployment rates at historic lows, many in the business community are reconsidering a long-held policy of not hiring people with criminal records—especially since a third of working-age Americans have a criminal record, according to research cited by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU.

“The lack of employment is one of the key reasons people end up going back to prison or jail,” says Damon J. Phillips, the Lambert Family Professor of Social Enterprise and co-director of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise. “At least 60 percent of people are unemployed one year after leaving prison. Many of those who have jobs—such as day laborers—don’t have long-term employment solutions.”

Against this backdrop, the School’s ReEntry Acceleration Program (REAP) was created. An initiative of the Tamer Center, REAP takes a two-pronged approach to addressing the issue of mass incarceration: helping incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals gain business skills that will help them upon reentry, and working with the business community to help change attitudes, policies, and processes around hiring formerly incarcerated people.

The idea for REAP was sparked, during a lunch nearly three years ago, by Phillips and Tony Tamer, who along with his wife, Sandra, donated the endowment for the Tamer Center. “We were talking about the types of things the business community can do to be a part of the solution for social problems in general, and at one point we were on the topic of mass incarceration,” Phillips says. “I left that lunch thinking about what could be done.”

At least 60 percent of people are unemployed one year after leaving prison. Many of those who have jobs—such as day laborers—don’t have long-term employment solutions. —Professor Damon J. Phillips

The conversation prompted Phillips to visit the University of Virginia to meet with Darden School of Business professor Greg Fairchild, PhD ’02, who with his wife, Tierney Temple Fairchild, runs a nonprofit where MBA students volunteer to teach business and entrepreneurship skills to prisoners in an effort to reduce recidivism. (A RAND Corporation study found that incarcerated people who take education courses have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison, compared with those who do not.) After gathering information on the Fairchilds’ experiences, Phillips led a 2016 University conference, jointly hosted with Columbia’s Center for Justice, on how businesses and universities can help incarcerated people reenter society. Later that year, with the help of many throughout the Columbia community, the REAP Immersion course became a reality, along with the formation of the Business Association to improve hiring opportunities for people with criminal records. 

“One reason this experience has been successful is because this is not just some rogue prof; it’s been a lot of people pushing in the same direction,” says Phillips. “It’s an institution committing to this.”

Bridget Osborne.

Scott Langley

Not a Typical MBA Class

The REAP Immersion class is a key component of REAP. The first of its kind at any business school, REAP Immersion stands out for the learning that flows in both directions between the two groups of students—the MBA students and the incarcerated students. While those in prison gain valuable business and financial skills, the MBA students develop a firsthand understanding of the justice system and the mass incarceration crisis, as well as how most formerly incarcerated people can—and often really want to—contribute to society.

“Because the MBA students are doing the teaching, this means you have a dual opportunity for learning,” says Phillips, who co-teaches REAP Immersion. “The MBAs get as much or more out of the experience as those they are teaching.”

In addition to the negotiation class, the MBA students teach entrepreneurship and financial empowerment classes at prisons and reentry organizations. REAP partners closely with two nonprofits, Resilience Education and Hour Children, which provide proven expertise in developing and teaching business curricula as well as delivering prison- and community-based services to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and their families. With Hour Children in Long Island City, MBA students also teach financial empowerment and Getting to Yes workshops to women who have returned home.

Professor Damon J. Phillips.

A key component of REAP is its Business Association, a network of businesses, reentry organizations, investors, and policy makers. The group provides a forum for businesses to learn about the benefits of hiring formerly incarcerated people and connects companies to organizations that facilitate hiring. “We want to be a place where an employer can go from an organization that is thinking about hiring from this talent pool to one that is actually doing it,” says Professor Damon Phillips. One such employer is P.S. Kitchen, a restaurant in Manhattan co-owned by April Tam Smith ’10. The restaurant, which donates all profits to charity, has 41 employees, of whom nearly a third have been incarcerated. “The ‘P.S.’ in our name is a way to say, ‘Hey, P.S., we give away 100 percent of our profits. P.S., we give people a second chance,” Smith says. P.S. Kitchen’s general manager, Jeff LaPadula, says the formerly incarcerated people they’ve hired through reentry organizations typically have a superior work ethic. “After what they have experienced, they are so grateful to have a chance,” he says. One dishwasher with what LaPadula describes as a “great personality, great smile” was hired through Business Association member the Doe Fund and is now one of the restaurant’s longest-tenured employees. He was recently given greater responsibility, tasked with ordering the restaurant’s paper goods. Another star employee is attending Baruch College after P.S. Kitchen gave him his first job following 16 years in prison. Success stories like these are what Phillips and the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise want to replicate. The Business Association aims to get 200 businesses on board by 2020 to provide 2,000 formerly incarcerated people with career-track jobs leading to financial independence. To join the Business Association, please email [email protected].

Photo by Matthew Septimus

“Many Americans lack financial literacy skills, but the costs of that for someone who has been incarcerated are dire,” Phillips says. “There are real benefits we hope to provide through what we teach.”

Martino, who co-taught the class at Taconic, says that throughout the semester, he was impressed by the commitment and dedication the women gave the course. “In the beginning, I didn’t know what I would encounter,” he says. “But they are just a group of women who could have been my sister or my mother, who want to do better. It’s inspiring because all they want is another chance.”

Martino is one of about 20 students to take this first REAP Immersion course. Students have to apply and be accepted to the course, and they take turns teaching the sessions at Taconic and at Hour Children. The course was co-developed by Daniel Ames, the Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Business Management. An expert in negotiation, Ames trained the MBA students to lead the Getting to Yes sessions.

Ames attended the final session at Taconic, saying afterward that it took courage and grace for the women to participate. “This is not a lecture course where people take notes and they get it,” he says. “Most of the time is spent in hands-on role-play, negotiating and engaging with each other—advancing their position, collaborating—and then taking a step back from that game and being able to talk about it in a constructive way.”

This class worked because the Taconic students were willing to critique themselves and others in a thoughtful way, he explains. “This happened because our instructors set the right tone, and so the students were naturally excited about the topic and willing to work with each other,” Ames says. “They were not just empty vessels that we filled up with content. They were co-creators of the learning.”

To develop the Getting to Yes class, Ames worked with current students to ensure the material was relevant to the Taconic students. “We rewrote MBA cases to put them in a context that would be accessible and compelling in a small-business or entrepreneurial context,” Ames says.

Among the students who helped design the materials was Imani Gooden ’18, who says she chose Columbia over other business schools because of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise. She calls her participation in REAP “the heart of my CBS experience.”

Gooden had volunteered in prisons in the past but says her experience at Taconic was different in that her students were extremely engaged. “Every woman has her homework done, has read the case, and comes with questions,” she says. “These are people burdened with unfortunate circumstances but are still forward-thinking.”

Prior to business school, Gooden worked in diversity and inclusion at Google. Whatever line of work she chooses after graduation, it’s likely she’ll be in a position to impact hiring decisions. And that’s one way Phillips and Ames see this effort at Columbia reaching far beyond the classroom—with future business leaders sharing their firsthand knowledge of how formerly incarcerated people can integrate successfully into society and be reliable and motivated employees.

"It’s a great privilege to take these classes. We can be productive members of society and pay taxes. We just need a chance to prove that, and then we can move forward." —Bridget Osborne  

“We want our students to be ambassadors of a kind as they go into a range of fields, where they can be advocates and champions of the formerly incarcerated,” says Ames.

Phillips also hopes that in addition to breaking down stereotypes, the course will give MBA students a better sense of the collateral costs of incarceration. Besides team teaching and group lesson-planning, the students attend a weekly class for discussions and to hear guest speakers. (A recent guest speaker was a successful entrepreneur who started his now $5 million-a-year business just after serving five years in federal prison.)

“With the direct experience, you walk away thinking about the wide-ranging impact prison has on families and communities,” Phillips says. “There’s the very personal cost, with children navigating the world while their parents are incarcerated; and there’s the macroeconomics of mass incarceration—the cost to state and city budgets that essentially, as taxpayers, we’re all paying for.”

Back in the Taconic classroom, several of the women say they are ready to use their newfound negotiation skills at their parole hearings. Bridget Osborne is applying for clemency after 22 years in prison. She says the Columbia-led classes will be invaluable when she finally leaves. “In the financial class, I’ve learned about interest, looking at the long term for investments, and how to budget.” There are things she wants to do differently—plan more and spend less. “As a woman, I love expensive clothes and shoes. But when I leave here, I will limit myself. Those things are less important now.”

“It’s a great privilege to take these classes. We can be productive members of society and pay taxes. We just need a chance to prove that, and then we can move forward.”

As the December workshop concludes, the group is asked if the Business School should again offer Getting to Yes.

“YES!” is the resounding answer.

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