How one startup is helping Nebraska’s overcrowded prisons with inmate education

By August 18, 2017

On Wednesday, the Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit to put an end to the human rights crisis in Nebraska’s prisons.

This is due to the horrific overcrowding and lack of basic health treatment for prisoners who desperately need it.

The poor access to basic health treatment has been to blame for a number of incidents such as the death of one prisoner who suffered a heart attack. This was after he was ignored for weeks while exhibiting clear symptoms. Another inmate went blind after being denied sufficient treatment for his diabetes. Additionally, prisoners with mental illnesses are often confined to solitary confinement, worsening their condition with an increased risk of self-mutilation and suicide.

Poor conditions within the prisons are often exacerbated by the dangerous condition which are a threat to inmates and staff. Within the past two years, four prisoners have died along with a number of injured staff members due to riots within the prisons. Moreover, one prisoner was killed by their inmate after the two were locked into an isolated cell together.  

These issues are blamed on the stressed resources and severe overcrowding. Overall, The system is at close to 160% of its capacity, with four prisons at close to 200% of capacity and one at a shocking 302%. While overcrowding has been a constant issue for the past decade, the problem has become increasingly bad.

The situation might look bleak for many inmates, however, one startup is aiming to help prisons find a better life after prison with incredible results.

Defy Ventures is a nonprofit startup which aims to educate prisoners on business skills, using coaching from entrepreneurs so they have a better chance of obtaining jobs, starting business and making a positive impact on society. Due to a national recidivism rate of 76%, most parolees are rearrested within a year. However, Defy Ventures has reduced recidivism to an astonishing 3% with entrepreneur training.

The program can also be an eye opening experience for community leaders and entrepreneurs that volunteer as it gives them a chance to understand the inmates lives and perspectives while making a positive contribution. Moreover, the program has created 350 jobs across the country, including states such California, New York and New Jersey where the program also operates.

nebraska prisons

Catherine Hoke, Founder and CEO at Defy Ventures

Defy Ventures focuses on identifying and sharpening the skills that participants already have to “put fast, legal money in their pockets,” as Founder Catherine Hoke puts it. Hoke was once a Wall Street analyst who discovered a passion for helping inmates turn their lives around when visiting a Texas prison. She found that former criminals possessed skills that could be utilized to succeed in legitimate businesses.

“A lot of people who have served time grew up in very tough circumstances that forced them to become natural-born hustlers,” Hoke said. “Many of them are really scrappy go-getters.” She also stated “We work with a lot of people who have committed very tough crimes,” adding that “Most of the people that we serve commit violent crimes, and we help them to transform their lives.”

Participants are chosen based on essays and behavior records. On average they work 20 hours a week in Defy classes, which also includes homework assignments, for six to nine months, varying depending on the prison. Overall, Defy has incubated more than 150 businesses conceived by 525 paroled alumni. On top of this the program has helped to fund their ideas, contributing more than $500,000 and connecting the ex-cons with angel investors once they’re out.

This program is has a fantastic ROI, which is excellent for the system which is currently under severe financial constraints. In Nebraska, it costs $36,000 to incarcerate a prisoner for 1 year. For one participant to take part in the Defy program it cost $500. As this heartwarming video demonstrates, this program is proving to have an incredible impact on inmates lives and their future. You can physically see the impact Defy has had on one participant who was close to tears at their graduation ceremony.

Earlier in June, roughly 60 inmates at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution in Nebraska took part in a kick-off event for Defy Ventures. Despite the harsh reality that Nebraska’s prisons are in crisis, there is hope, as long as the country’s brightest minds continue to make an effort to transform the lives of inmates in these horrible conditions. While Defy is currently only in four states, the results of this program demonstrate that more can be done across the country to help shape these individuals into tomorrow’s entrepreneurs.