It's Hope That Springs The Inmate

Hope is a strong and powerful thing. You can’t let it be extinguished by a system that has a lens that says, You can’t do sh** with your life, now, because you were in here.” - Dr. Turner Nashe

Sometimes our eyes can play tricks on us making objects that are closer seem farther away. Even my side view mirror reminds me of it in writing. Scientifically, it is known as perspective. Socially, it can occur by way of a phenomenal conversation.

It’s precisely what happened when I sat down with Dr. Turner Nashe to discuss his tech-driven education plan for training inmates. The world that appeared distant from my own came right up to my doorstep and reminded me that we are all in this together. Incarceration is a business; it’s a taxpayer’s liability but most of all, it’s a human issue. All our lives are interconnected, and it’s a fundamental human issue to take care, educate and tend to the needs of every member of society. Inmates are part of society and those reentering need the right footing to secure a future that in the long-term benefits everyone.

I highly recommend reading this impassioned interview with Dr. Turner Nashe. Rarely have I met someone as heartfelt, straightforward, insightful, and convincing. I could have talked with Dr. Nashe for hours and almost succeeded in that plan. Below is one in what I hope will be a series of interviews with this inspiring and uplifting entrepreneur.

Rod Berger: Where are we, Turner, in how we meaningfully educate our inmate population to have the best success when they reenter or assimilate?

Turner Nashe: I don’t think that every inmate needs to have a four-year degree in order to succeed. Many of us know that having even an advanced degree in today’s market doesn’t guarantee you a sustainable wage. So where do I see education as it relates to inmates? I think it needs to be more focused on critical thinking skills that can be applied in the real-world setting to overcome barriers like the "box" so that you can make a living wage upon release.

RB: It seems to me that something must be missing in the way in which we are providing training or opportunity and access to learning skills. Because if we’re just purely giving them skills and not thinking about what it’s like upon reentry, aren’t we missing a major gap? If they’re on the job site they should feel confident that the skills they learn will help them assimilate into society as opposed to saying, “Hey, look at me. I am a convicted felon who is now back in society and I have to struggle with all the other elements outside that go along just knowing the trade.”

TN: Yes! I’m agreeing with you, and we are definitely on the same page. The problem is getting to the job site, right? The problem is being able to take advantage of not necessarily an academic education, but workforce development. This is the purpose for us heading down the path that we’re heading. When I was the unemployment insurance director for the State of Tennessee, at the height of the crisis, we had about 100,000 people on unemployment every week. And what I began to see was some of these old jobs, older manufacturing jobs, were coming to an end and the new jobs all had to deal with technology and STEM-related subjects. How to work a robot? How to work on an assembly line? How to pull together a new business from scratch? It's just different in 2016 than it even was in 2010, than it even was in 2000 - that’s ancient now.

I believe that workforce development in the trades where you can use your hands in maybe not so sexy industries should be the targets that ex-felons focus on. It’s not rocket science, and again, this is my opinion, the chances of you being released and scoring a $100,000 a year job that you didn’t create are pretty slim.

I think when you are released from prison there should be an aftercare wraparound plan for services. Ultimately, what we’re doing is we’re pushing off those services, but we already know that we’re going to have future cost because of the higher recidivism rates.

There's a threat felt by the correctional professional that they may be out of a job or that they may not be in control of these inmates. And I’m telling you, man, correction is a serious business. Some people really deserve to be behind bars. But some people just made mistakes and they deserve that second chance. In order to fulfill their own destiny, they need to have a say in what they do.

My business is only successful today because I didn’t listen to what people were trying to tell me about what’s going to happen. “You’re going to go to jail. You’re going to be a felon. When you get out, you’re going to have a parole officer. You’re never going to be able to get a great job.” I was like, “Man, that’s not my life.” My hope made me get a doctorate while I was under indictment, and while I was going through pre-trials. My hope made me learn prisons and jails as a business because $68 billion a year is a lot of money and I don’t think that everybody behind bars is guilty because I know I didn’t do anything. That hope kept me fighting for my freedom. That hope pushed me to finish school with my doctorate. That hope forced me to start the business that helps 10,000 people every day right now.

So when we talk about hope in that population, Rod, anybody getting out can do anything primarily because you’re a child of God. If that’s your mission, there’s no man or no criminal record that can stop you.

What I’m saying, Rod, is that there’s always a way. Hope is a strong and powerful thing. You just can’t let it be extinguished by a system that has a lens that says, “You can’t do sh** with your life now because you were in here.”

RB: You’re talking about $68 billion being spent on an annual basis. How do we define what the next frontier looks like and how do we reposition or reallocate funding that is already being spent in a manner that incorporates what they will experience? I know that we’ve talked off-air about some technologies that you’re interested in, but how can we very thoughtfully and mindfully take a system that can be challenging to interface with (I think you’ve said that quite well) – and do it in a way that is mindful of all the variables at play? How do we introduce inmates to hope that is actionable once they get out?

TN: Number one, you have to recognize there’s a problem. Check, they’ve done that. Two, you have to reallocate resources. When I say resources, I don’t just mean money, I mean people with the expertise that have a track record that know how to fashion their educational programs and curriculum and design and development for people to find their jobs post release.

Number three, comes the implementation of the programming. I don’t know what that looks like but I do know that it is still specialized, that it has to be done from the inside out. I think when you’re dealing with non-traditional learners – you look at the definition (people older than 35.) That’s going to be the population that we’re working with here.

I would state that inmates should take some sort of assessment to evaluate their skill level. I would say as part of your correctional plan, as I stated earlier, while you’re incarcerated you must finish X number of classes to get you basically to a minimum education. That minimum education will then allow you to either, A, move on to further education, B, move on to some vocation trade or skill, or C, move on to some sort of career path.

We have the Bureau of Labor and Workforce Development throughout this entire country. They need to hitch up with corrections and that has not happened to date. As we talk about the reallocation of resources to push this plan, I would say that that would be a strong third or fourth.

They’ve got all the tools for workforce readiness and certificates and federal bonding for inmates. You know, they used to have the workforce opportunity tax credit, which will give employers tax credits for hiring felons. I’d like to see all of those tools come back.

RB: And then where did they go? What was going on with the environment that said those were not beneficial to the ultimate plan? I’m thinking about the word rehabilitate, but I know that has a lot of connotation especially in the media around prisons, development and support of prisoners.

TN: Where did it go? Great question. I think what you’ll find is that these programs may exist but they may not be funded or publicized during specific administrations that don’t believe in hope in that particular population.

RB: So that’s it? There's a political slant.

TN: Yes. And I’ll say, based on research, most inmates will say their K-12 school failed them, which is why they became inmates. They are still members of society that deserve a free public education. Either they are going to be knocking you off at the ATM or they could get right and be filling out job applications. I prefer the latter.

RB: Very strong statement for sure.

TN: Yes. We’re going to have to make the investment. So where did the programs go? I don’t know man. I think it’s a political climate. I think its Congress funding or not funding some of these situations. I think that we have to be much more cognizant of the fact that it’s almost the three-card thing that I used to see in Vegas on the sidewalk.

Some of these programs move around, they take different shapes and take different names. By the time you find out where it is, it’s looking like something else. I’d like for permanent programming to be available for those who need it. Something else to take into account, Rod, and this is the honest-to-goodness truth. There are a very high number of incarcerated individuals with drug and alcohol problems who have mental health issues. It's a very high number.

I think if we remove those folks from the overall correctional population, we might see lower numbers of recidivism. We need to be giving better healthcare and better wraparound services, once again, to those populations.

RB: Redefine what the population is or looks like and then figure out how to then support them, right?

TN: Correct. There’s a program that I was involved in and I’m humble, right? I was talking to my mom over the weekend. I mentioned, “Mom, I’ve been in the White House five or six times this year." But one of the best meetings I ever attended was a woman who fashioned a PowerPoint slide that she called "high users" or "frequent flyers," I think that was it. The presentation talked about Miami and I think there was a map of Chicago and all the people that continually got arrested. She compared how many of those people had mental health issues and overall health issues. The correlation was really high. So people asked, "Why don’t we retrain our police force or at least a division of them so that if somebody calls the police on this person, we can send mental health professional rather than a cop that’s looking to lock them up, and we can get them some help."

And I don’t know how far along she is on her research, but I thought it was brilliant. Let’s send them a nurse instead of sending a cop. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with cops but they’re not nurses, right? Let’s send a therapist. Think of somebody that can address a mental health emergency, with their training and possibly provide medication rather than having to meet them with force.

RB: Great point, Turner. Additionally, I know that you have interest in new technologies. By taking an overarching view of our discussion today, I’d like for you to share and speak with me about the real potential of bringing in technologies that you and I might deem as free: technologies we integrate into our lives and into our approaches in work activities. You have a different take on it and I’d love for you to talk about that.

TN: Sure. So there’s this principle, that basically states that every seven years technology doubles. So for me, almost seven years ago we got into this prison technology piece. We need to get tablets into the hands of inmates. It’s part of my dissertation as to why inmates did not participate in GED program while incarcerated. We found that the top reasons were poor previous school experience and lack of family support. Inmates didn’t feel a GED would help them get a job upon release. A close fourth was, inmates didn’t have consistent access to learning environments.

So, right around 2009-2010, is when the iPad came out and I thought, “Wow, what a great idea. Why don’t we take these iPads, put them in the hands of inmates and allow them to study in their cells, almost do some sort of blended learning or reverse the classroom where they could go through their course content curriculum in their cell and then have substantive time for question and answer when they’re in front of a proctor or professor. That’s 2009-2010. I couldn’t find anybody to accept it because the commercially available product would need security requirements. I decide to go over to China and design my own tablet. We manufacture those tablets. We deliver over 30,000 of them throughout corrections and guess what, my seven years is up.

RB: Time to iterate, Turner. Time to iterate.

TN: The market has literally caught up to me. I have competitors that have some product that is not as good as mine, but some product that is as good as mine. But now I have product that is better than mine in this industry because people have more money. In my mind I'm thinking, what’s next? If I'm truly a believer in technology, which I am, what can I implement that is next that my competitors haven't developed.

Talking to my children, and my 13-year-old is telling me about Google Cardboard and I say, “Oh, that’s great.” And he wants to show me and as he’s showing me, I have this "Aha moment." He shows me a video of a roller coaster, and I'm looking around in 360, it's VR and I think this is great; augmented reality basically. He says, “You know, they have roller coasters where you can wear VR goggles and it’s the same hardware roller coaster track but you can have 10 or 11 different experiences. I respond, “What?”

RB: You and I are too old for that.

TN: Right. He shows one of them where you’re flying with Superman on this roller coaster. And I said, “Oh my god. That would be awesome.” It then takes me back to my Department of Labor days where at the time; Volkswagen built a plant in Chattanooga. They wanted to hire a bunch of people, but they had to be trained and the resources were put in place. I thought to myself, “What if we used this virtual reality or this augmented reality to build work force development modules for inmates to study prior to release?”

And I thought, “What trades could we get into?” And then I thought about my grandfather plumbing, HVAC, and laying cable for Comcast; all of the things that you can do with your hands that don’t require a two-year or four-year degree. But somebody has to see that, Rod, in order to build hope that they can do it. If I can see somebody replacing a ball valve, I’m going to think to myself, “That didn’t look that difficult, maybe I need to look at plumbing. I didn’t know what that entailed before I saw this video.”

If somebody needs to walk into a bank and open a bank account, you could literally have it where you walk into a bank and it pops up. Here’s where the teller sits, here is where the bank manager sits. This is what an application looks like, you could do a job interview or somebody sits there and you’re at a desk and you don’t get nervous the next time you go because psychologically you’ve been there before. Repetition and new experiences can now be offered through virtual and augmented reality. The experience reduces the anxiety level when you’re actually getting out for the first time and you haven’t been out in years where you have to go and perform these functions.

RB: So Turner, I would imagine that to bring this forward and see it in actuality – or in reality, no pun intended, we’re talking about Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality. I would imagine that it takes an approach where you have multiple players and partners to be able to pull it off in a thoughtful and meaningful way. It's not sort of this one-off experience that we’ve seen in school districts around the US and challenges in global education where we drop in technology and just hope that it makes a difference.

TN: This integrated approach is going to require partners. It’s going to require industry partners, correctional partners, content partners and it’s going to take time but I’m willing to make that investment in the time because as we get older, we lose facts. We lose sight of the fact that inmates are being incarcerated in prison as young as 18. These folks are digital natives. All they’ve ever done is grow up on a small screen and have access to this.

So just like we went from scrolls to books, to laptops, to tablets, I think this VR piece is next.

RB: I have never thought of it that way but it’s so true that the next generation of prison population will be digital natives just like anybody in society.

TN: Yes.

RB: That’s a very, very strong statement. Well, we appreciate your time; Turner and we look forward to documenting the story here because like you said, it’s going to take time. The rewards seem to out weigh the challenges.

TN: Yes.

RB: There are challenges to the system like any system.

TN: Every 30 people we keep from coming back saves taxpayers a million dollars a year, every 30 people. So my goal is to have a 1 million people at home not going back. I think that will reduce the need for these exorbitant budgets. It will reduce the need for all of these prisons. It will reduce the need unfortunately for a lot of prison staff. If you look at the data, prison guard or prison officer attrition is about 37% per year across the country. So they’re replacing entire workforces every three years and it’s expensive.

But all you have to do is graduate from high school. What you really have at some level are uneducated or should I say, non-college educated people watching over non-college educated people. It’s a vicious cycle where you and I as taxpayers are paying the bill on both sides, to incarcerate and for the prison guard salary.

RB: That definitely is an entire discussion in and of itself. Well, we want to thank you, Turner.

TN: Thank you.

You can see the video version of this interview on edCircuit – Powering the Global Education Conversation.

Dr. Turner Nashe, President of IDS - is an entrepreneur, inventor, innovator and recognized leader in building technology that facilitates delivery of educational and entertaining content to security sensitive industries such as correctional facilities, hospitals and school administrators. Dr. Nashe is based in Nashville, TN where he received his doctorate in Educational Administration and Supervision from Tennessee State University. Dr. Nashe also received a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from John Carroll University.

Dr. Nashe has built several businesses around proprietary digital delivery systems that provide relevant content to correctional facilities and hospitals. He has worked with firms in the private and public sectors as well as governmental entities. His work has attracted firms from the Fortune 500 to medium-sized organizations and start-up technology firms. His inventions have created innovative solutions for emerging eco-systems that are revolutionizing traditional approaches to delivery of educational content within secure facilities.

His thought leadership has helped organizations transition from the mental models of an ego-system to the 21st century eco-system required to accelerate educational content that facilitates behavioral transformation of human capital. His inventions represent innovative approaches to the use of digital technology as the means to accelerate human development and social performance. While technology is rapidly advancing Dr. Nashe wants to ensure that it enables and optimizes human development to its fullest potential. Dr. Nashe can be reached at tnashe@ids615.com

Follow Dr. Turner Nashe on Twitter

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About Rod Berger, PsyD.

Dr. Rod Berger is President and CEO of MindRocket Media Group. Berger is a global education media personality and strategic influencer featured in The Huffington Post, Scholastic, AmericanEdTV, edCircuit and in EdTechReview India.

Audiences have enjoyed education interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Arne Duncan, Randi Weingarten, Sal Khan along with leading edtech investors, award-winning educators, and state and federal education leaders. Berger's latest project boasts a collaboration with AmericanEdTV and CBS's Jack Ford.

Follow Dr. Rod Berger on Twitter

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