By Christopher Zoukis
The U.S. may have the worst recidivism rate in the world at 76.6 percent, but that doesn’t mean the system has failed every prisoner. There are a handful of inspiring stories about some that went to jail and used their time to turn their lives around, got out, and made lasting differences in their communities. Here are three of those stories.
After serving 15 years in the prison system, Dave Dahl was released in 2005 and accepted employment with his brother, Glenn, in the family’s bakery. He then proceeded to develop an entirely new recipe for a non-GMO, organic bread. Upon this new bread’s debut at a farmers market in Portland, it became an instant success, and Dave’s Killer Bread was born.
And he didn’t stop there. Today, Dave’s Killer Bread is sold across North America and is the No. 1 ranked organic bread in the American market. Further, one-third of the company's 300 employees are former criminals that are filling positions at every level, even management.
“These individuals demonstrate the commitment, the passion and the power to learn and grow, becoming some of the company’s most valued and trusted workers,” Dave’s Killer Bread company states.
Drinking and driving doesn’t mix. This is a lesson Mike Christenson learned the hard way after his drunk driving took the life of a friend. He was sentenced to jail for vehicular manslaughter.
“Prison had nothing to offer as far as self-improvement goes. Kitchen jobs that paid twelve cents an hour were all that was offered. I realized early on in my 10-year term that if I wanted to better myself, I'd have to do it on my own,” Christenson said in a media interview.
Determined to not let his stint in prison ruin his chances of a good life on the outside, he enrolled in a distance learning program and started working on an Associate of Arts degree. During the last three years of his sentence, he also enrolled in The Last Mile program, which offers inmates business and technology training to improve their chances of a successful re-entry into society.
Mike worked hard at his training and after his release, was awarded a scholarship to a top coding school in New York.
“I have no doubt that I will be successful, and never return to prison,” Christenson says.
Gene’s life didn’t have a happy start. His father was abusive to his mother before abandoning the family in a rough neighborhood. Then Gene’s mother got a new boyfriend – who tried to kill him. Manigo took the man’s life in self defense and went on the run.
It took the law 10 years to catch up to him, but when they did, Manigo was slammed with a 30-year sentence.
Upon his release in 2014, he received help from Refoundry, a nonprofit business incubator in Brooklyn that offers paid training, mentorship, studio space and tools so that people can learn to make furniture and start their own businesses. Refoundry has a special interest in teaching former inmates to create and sell furniture, as its social justice-minded founders believe that encouraging entrepreneurship is a good way to reduce recidivism across America.
Today, Manigo is the proud owner of his own custom furniture company.
"Refoundry and entrepreneurship helped me get out of the system, find myself, and prove to myself that I can become part of society,” he says with pride.
This is just a handful of stories about people who went to jail and came out determined not to return, and who now contribute to society in numerous ways. The American justice and prison system is far from perfect, and the rates of incarceration, widespread lack of education among prisoners, and the propensity to reoffend are ongoing issues, but there are those that make it through and come out rehabilitated. Those willing to help former inmates succeed provide a valuable thing to both those they are helping and to the society of which they are a part: hope.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.