Almost 650,000 ex-offenders re-enter society every year. Sadly, almost two-thirds of those released will be rearrested within three years. The U.S. is not only the most economically advanced country in the world, but it also boasts one of the largest prison and ex-offender populations. The number of people either imprisoned or on parole in this country exceeds the current population of Ireland, Jamaica, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, and Panama. In 2016, nearly 7 million people, 2.2% of the U.S. population, were either serving time at a state, federal, juvenile or local jail facility or on probation. The overwhelming majority of ex-offenders share two things in common – they are more likely to be Black or Hispanic and/or come from communities that are economically disenfranchised, making the challenges and stigma of reentry even more overwhelming.
When ex-offenders come home, the readjustment isn’t easy. Let’s face it, in this country having a police record of any kind is a lifelong disadvantage that makes it almost impossible for ex-offenders to find meaningful employment and educational opportunities. They cannot vote, receive public housing and social benefits, their parental rights are restricted, as is their ability to find employment in certain fields. The proverbial deck is systematically stacked against them. While there are numerous nonprofits, private, and government organizations committed to challenging the system and making life after prison easier, few are close to cracking the code and making a real impact. Complicated problems sometimes require equally complex solutions and while more philosophical approaches are needed, a few entrepreneurs are trying to uncover what role technology can play in making life after incarceration easier for millions of Americans.
Tiffany Smith is one of those entrepreneurs. She is the founder and CEO of Tiltas – a digital platform that connects the formerly incarcerated to the resources needed to breakdown the barriers to reentry. Tiffany and her team are dedicated to understanding the needs of a niche population AND crafting new solutions that greet them before they take the first step back into society. “Do I think technology can solve some of the world’s biggest problems? Absolutely. But do I think people are doing the type of deep dive into the problem(s) the way they should before slapping a technological solution on it? No.”
Tiffany is one of the most unique individuals to ever take on the issue of mass incarceration. As a startup CEO, she’s a MBA-wielding “fuzzy” (someone who hails from a liberal arts background). She’s using tech to make an impact in the nonprofit world and deliver a solution that adequately addresses one of the biggest social challenges faced by the country.
After sitting down with Tiffany this past July, two things became apparent. The first is that incarceration and recidivism are dubious and complicated issues, and while technology can address some of this complexity, it’s not the ultimate solution. Secondly, Tiffany has a lot of heart for trying to tackle what most would consider the impossible. “Apparently, I really like involving myself in really complicated things.”
Here’s more of Tiffany Smith’s interview with THE PATH.
Nneka Ude: Tell me about Tiltas’ mission?
Tiffany Smith: Our mission is to essentially scale up all the resources that can be provided to men and women coming home from prison. We are attempting to change the model around what reentry looks like in this country. Currently there aren't enough people, talent, resources and just anything you can think of, to provide to someone who has spent time behind bars.
Nneka Ude: How old is the company?
Tiffany Smith: The company is roughly a year old, we were in ideation for about six months before incorporation. So, total time from idea-to-now is a year and six months.
Nneka Ude: Interesting, so what was your spark and why the challenge of re-entry?
Tiffany Smith: I have a lot of friends and family members who have been through the system. During my first year in business school, I decided to pick apart what it meant to come home from prison in this country. I had a couple of really close friends who did time and came home; and just seeing how much they had to struggle to find even the most basic things to get back on their feet has been a driver. Whether they were trying to find a job, or trying to figure out where to apply for a job - this stuff doesn't come as easy as it does for most folks in this country. So, the real moment was a series of moments that added up. The apex was when I got to school and had the time and flexibility to be able to pick it apart and try to figure it out.
Nneka Ude: Finding a way to help individuals successfully re-enter society once they have served time, whether justly or unjustly, is difficult. But how much more difficult is it when ethnicity is involved? Are there any stats you can share regarding the impact incarceration is having on black and Latino youth and their families?
Tiffany Smith: So, hard line numbers will be a little bit hazy for me, but generally speaking, you can assume roughly 50 to 60 percent of the in-prisoned, not in jail, but in-prison population, consist of men of color; and by men of color I mean Black and Hispanic. On average, I believe Blacks and Hispanics are somewhere between two and three times more likely to serve prison time after being arrested. The majority of communities of color affected by mass incarceration are poor and are usually coming from the lower one-third of the socio-economic totem pole in this country. So, when their family members are arrested they're usually shoveling out dollars to either sustain themselves, defend their loved ones, or provide support for them through commissary. And if you think about the long-term effects of it, even on the front end when you have to pay jail bonds; or when folks need to get out of jail just before trial, oftentimes this is what hits families the hardest.
If you really want to talk about who's benefiting from the system, it’s the corporations that are taking these dollars in from communities that need it the most, which is really devastating. I think what has happened over the last 30-odd years is that people have started to sniff away at why these organizations are benefiting so much. Only now are we really starting to see, from a cultural perspective, the damage that it has had. It's one of those things that everyone wants to find a way to explain away, but at the end of the day, no one should be benefiting from someone being behind bars. We (the United States) are one of the only countries that truly does enable companies to benefit from free labor, which is essentially slavery. It’s created a deep schism in the black community, where most of our fathers and sons aren't around to be there for their kids and their family members.
Nneka Ude: When we think about your solution as it is right now, what is your core value proposition for both the end-user, i.e. ex-offenders, and your partner companies?
Tiffany Smith: So, the original concept that we discussed the last time we spoke was essentially an app. An app would be the landing point for someone who has just got home. So, when they are home, they input their ZIP Code and let’s say they need three things, “I need coaching, I need guidance, I need food or housing.” Input that and the platform would provide them with the right resources.
What I've learned over the last couple weeks though, is that even with a prototype of this, the guys and the women too, are unable to use it. Not for lack of intelligence, but just from a lack of exposure to technology.
If you’ve been away for more than seven or eight years, or even five years, you don’t know how to use an iPhone. So, what we’ve done is try to scale it back just being as basic as a text messaging service that can provide the information via a simple survey.
What I've learned is that the biggest and most critical pain point for this population isn’t necessarily coming home; it's usually just figuring out where to start. It’s hard to know where to start if no one is there to watch or be accountable towards you. On the back end with corporations they are seeing the pipeline - as the pipeline is coming home, and they're getting access to the pipeline either through providing services, sponsoring this population, or even just being around to help in terms of providing coaching and guidance.
I think that a very viable version of this is going to result in having companies and nonprofits talking to each other to assist the population through the platform.
Nneka Ude: So, from a business and economic perspective, what makes this population desirable? We know the stereotypes about this population and the challenges they create for people trying to turn their lives around. What’s the narrative that we must change to break down the barriers faced by ex-offenders?
Tiffany Smith: I think there are a few keywords that come to mind when people think or talk about this population from an employment perspective; and they usually revolve around inconsistent, unqualified or incompetent. I think that what we need to do as a community is reframe the experience of the people before they come home.
Personally, I'm not trying to take on that burden because I think that's the burden of the media and the burden of the voices that have power. For now, I think it's reframing a mainstream narrative, because quite frankly most men who served time in-prison are doing work while they're incarcerated as a requirement of their sentencing. A lot of them are getting their GED, their associates, or their bachelors. Some of them have their masters.
General perception is one of the biggest barriers to re-entry – just overall people fearing the population and being worried about their ability to perform. So, these individuals are not being given a chance. And what I will say is that the six or seven men and women that I'm working with right now are all extremely loyal and extremely consistent. They continuously provide me with their time and energy to help figure out how to make this thing work (Tiltas). I think it's mainly the fault of mainstream media and the images that you see from movies and through these crappy attempts at trying to characterize this population as both inhumane and incompetent. Over time I think it will change. Will this happen in our generation? Probably not, but I think what we could do in the short term is just make it easier for people to see this population in a positive light, which is what I hope to do. Right now, you are not going to see images of 30,000 men and women coming home from prison actively seeking employment, right? You just don’t see that image every day. So, if there is a way to provide that imagery then that’s what I'm all about and what I’m trying to do.