I never thought I'd be dabbling in the criminal justice space. Nor the tech space for that matter. I knew little to nothing about either one outside of the normal headlines we see on social media.
So when I got the chance to be on Kardell Sims' podcast The Re-entry Journey to talk about Welcm and my plan to use tech to reduce recidivism, I had to pinch myself. I literally had no idea this would ever happen. Also, recidivism is the fancy way to say the likelihood of folx going back to jail or prison after getting out because they recommit a crime (knowingly or unknowingly). But back to the story...
Chatting with him about inefficiencies within the justice system, how collateral consequences make it nearly impossible for anyone to stay on the right path, and why empathy strips away criminal stigmas are all topics I couldn't imagine myself having.
Funny enough, being on this podcast is a full-circle moment because it's where I started my journey. For hours, I'd listen to Kardell and his amazing guests (a mix of previously incarcerated individuals and their advocates) share their stories, aspirations, and lessons learned.
Never did I think I would be a guest on the same show. Yet, here I was. And here's how I got here.
In The Beginning
I've been sitting on this Welcm idea for a while now. A few years actually. It's developed over time, but the nuts and bolts of it started to come together in the last year.
When the idea came to me (in a dream, might I add), I didn't know what to make of it. It was my Jesus year (33). Instead of visions of a "groundbreaking" marketing venture I had been planning, God woke me up out of my GOOD sleep to talk to me about people in prison. It was random. It was loud. It was off the beaten path for me. So I went back to sleep, thinking it was just a "bad dream."
However, those divine nudges kept coming and I started to see prison-related things everywhere. On TV. On the radio. In my podcasts. In church sermons. In advertisements. On my social media. In random conversations when I was ear-hustling. I'd hear it in passing.
It popped up everywhere. And I mean EVERYWHERE.
1. Centralize The Human Experience
It wasn't until I saw Ava Duvernay's account of what happened to the Central Park Five Netflix series When They See Us did I gain a humanistic perspective of what people go through in and outside of prison. My emotions were heightened. Anger, sadness, and confusion all occupied the same space in my head.
I didn't understand the injustice. Neither did God.
After pausing the series for a moment of reflection, I found myself in my kitchen, crying and yelling. In that pregnant pause, I heard, "Imagine how I feel."
2. Write the Vision, Even If It's Not Always Plain
A word followed the whisper, and God led me to a well-known scripture: Habukkuk 2:2
"Write the vision and make it plain upon tablets, that he may run and read." - Habukkuk 2:2
After the nudges, the series, and the scripture, I realized I had been wrestling with God for too long. I finally had to tap out and tap into what he was doing.
To start, he prompted me to read the rest of the chapter.
In it, I quickly discovered this infamous verse had nothing to do with jotting down OUR dreams. This chapter and the next gave play-by-play accounts of what would happen to corrupt, unjust people if they didn't right their wrongs. It was my first time reading (and realizing) that God stood for justice. His version of justice extended to those who have been incarcerated, justly and unjustly.
This realization brought on a feverish rush to write down the ideas that came to me: a plan to come up with some kind of technology that empowers people who are coming out of jail or prison. Something that gives them hope. Something that allows them to feel and be in community. Something that offers steadfast mentorship. "Something" was all I had. But something was a start.
3. Gut Check Your Good Intentions
Even though I had an "if you build it, they will come" moment, I wanted to make sure what I had to offer would be motivational, helpful, and empowering.
I started to ask, "What technology already exists that empowers people who are reentering society after incarceration?" There were notable apps that helped people while they were in prison. But I just couldn't find any specifically made for folx when they got out.
And it was odd because more than 10,000 ex-prisoners are released from America's state and federal prisons every week (USDOJ, 2023).
With no point of reference, I started to research what people needed when they returned home from incarceration. At the very least, whatever technology I created would reflect something people cared about. The best way to find out what people care about -- see what they consistently talk about.
I started looking up different terms that were used to describe folx who were previously incarcerated. I did a deep dive into articles and studies written by the Vera Institute for Justice, the REFORM Alliance, the Prison Police Initiative, and the National Reentry Resource Center. I binged dozens of TED Talks about the re-entry experience (starting with one of my favorites from Valerie Hawes who broke this concept down beautifully). And I listened to countless podcast episodes, especially ones that gave first-hand accounts of their experience inside and outside of life behind bars. Many of those podcast episodes led me to Kardell.
4. Learn From Those Who Lived Through Re-entry
Listening to the Re-entry Journey, Kardell was such a breath of fresh air. Of all the podcast hosts I listened to, he sounded the most like family. His voice. His wisdom. His candor and storytelling. All of it sounded like I was listening to an uncle who was trying to put his younger family members on game to make sure they lived right. And his guests, episode after episode, shared their experiences that not only stuck with me - they moved me. Moved me to empathize.
And other times, it moved me to frustration. But the frustration wasn't pointed towards the guests sharing their stories. People who shared their re-entry stories and others who shared their re-entry initiatives to help those coming home kept running into systemic problems.
These systemic problems were strategically and incessantly point people back to prison for profit. The same amount of energy could be pointed towards programs, people, and policies that enhance the lives of those who were imprisoned and those who share the communities with them. But as my old boss used to say, that sounds "too much like right."
And I wanted to be a part of the group that was making things right. I just had to find out who to talk to. As God would have it, he divinely directed me to an amazing group of people who fit the description perfectly. A story for another time.
This reflection (and acknowledgment of my first podcast feature for Welcm) was prompted by this LinkedIn post (at the bottom) when I mentioned how crucial Kardell was to my journey. I shared just weeks before being on the show.
I had NO CLUE that I'd have the opportunity to share the same space with him. And for him to be just as gracious in person as he is on every other episode.
As I sign off, "What a Mighty God We Serve" is coming to mind. I fully hope, pray, believe, and decree that he will show his might as we fight for those he loves but society oftentimes forgets: the imprisoned, the oppressed and those society considers less.
If you want to join the fight for justice by leaving a "warm welcm" to those coming back home, you can do so below.
Until next time...
Stand out. Do good. Pursue justice - together.