When the prison door shut, my future shrank. I was a teenager who’d just made a major mistake, and now was sentenced to a year in a young offenders institute in the UK. You may think you know the brutality of prison, but unless you’ve experienced it, no words can describe how torturous it is.
My turnaround began because my family fought for my survival. Through their advocacy, I sat for my A-levels (exams high schoolers take in the UK) while in prison and once I was released, my grandfather helped me find my first job by introducing me to a newspaper editor he knew. Rather than judge me, this editor asked me what interested me and what I wanted to do with my life.
I was lucky to get a fresh start, but never dreamt that I would someday make it to the C-suite, appointed global CMO of R/GA. My journey has been one of unlikely possibilities —and it’s one I’m determined to make more possible for others with a record. I may be the first formerly incarcerated person to rise from reporter to press secretary for high-ranking politicians, to the C-suite of an iconic company, but I’m determined not to be the last.
Fortunately, I am not alone in this determination. R/GA, my new home, is just as committed to making change as I am. It’s a creative agency filled with people who are motivated by work outside of work, an orientation to life supported and fostered by the company.
It’s in this spirit that R/GA hired me. My perspective, my process, and my leadership includes my incarceration. They agree with my grandfather and my old editor: Everyone, including formerly incarcerated people, should be asked “What interests you and what do you want to do?”
This position may feel radical and to be fair, it is. Yet companies are made up of people—their hearts, minds, and hands—and there is power in doing the right thing. We’ve become too accustomed to “the way things are” and have forgotten that we can make choices that center our collective well-being. So, I’m hoping that what we build together can provide a model for those who want to join us.
In the US, we have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison population. That’s double the biggest peacetime prison population in history. Prisons are institutions that specialize in suffering. They strip people of their human rights, and inflict upon them physical, emotional, and mental traumas. Surviving incarceration is a miracle, and yet there are still many obstacles after release. Imagine the stigma of carrying around a record for a lifetime, and the questions that constantly plague you:
How will I live?
How will I get work?
Will I be able to find a place to rent?
Will I ever get to own my own home?
When will I heal, and how?
Will my community ever accept me again?
It’s not rocket science to see that the barriers to living a dignified life after incarceration are many, and that these barriers create recidivism. There are five million formerly incarcerated people in the U.S. with an unemployment rate of 27%. People are over-supervised, over-policed, pushed out of employment and school, and often, harassed back into incarceration.
To address this, we must look at ourselves, and at people with privilege in all industries, and ask: “How are you using your power to radically depart from this system that violates the civil rights of your neighbors?”
Historically, businesses have not been interested in taking a permanent, effective stand against our criminal justice system, loathe to let profits slip through their fingers. However, now we have a massive opportunity to put our values into practice, in a way that has not been done in the U.S. to date.
With 70 million Americans with a criminal conviction we are simply wasting genius—genius that could be working to discover cures to deadly illnesses, design greener cities, or revitalize Main Street brands. It’s time to tap into this talent, because the economic benefits to both employers and the national economy are clear. We can begin by questioning old stories and examining our own role in telling them.
Creating a new narrative
Narrative is powerful, and it is our responsibility in the creative industry to question what ideas and values we are disseminating, what stereotypes or biases we are introducing, and to whom we are giving platforms through our work.
The creative industry has served as an arbiter of ideas and a reflection of a society’s failing or burgeoning health. Creatives have had a powerful hand in building either massive propaganda machines or culture-changing art and movements. The question about which side we’ll fall in this dichotomy can be answered by choosing to be conscious of our resources and of our responsibilities.
Creating a new narrative really begins with questioning our past, examining the narrative we’ve built or that we subscribe to, and bringing in people who have been harmed by that narrative. It is essential to find solutions to our problems from and with the people who experience the impact of those problems. To start, let’s stop perpetuating the harmful narrative that profits from prisons are “just business.”
End the business of incarceration
Our industry must stop all advertising, branding, designing and technology development for police departments, Homeland Security, ICE, and other oppressive institutions. We must end relationships with companies that profit from incarceration, specifically those that use modern day slave labor.
There are thousands of corporations that are involved in the prison industrial complex, and we must pressure them to end their pursuit of profits off the bodies of people in the prison system. These corporations have monetized crime and punishment with the government’s help. Whether they draw money out of the pockets of incarcerated people and their support networks, or from taxpayer coffers, they siphon from the $80 billion in tax dollars spent annually to keep 2.3 million incarcerated.
If you don’t already work with a formerly incarcerated person, it’s very likely your business is not doing enough on this front. “Ban the box,” a policy that prohibits employers from asking upfront about criminal records, is often proffered as a remedy. But Ban the Box does little to drive this formula for success. Ultimately, second chance employers do get to the point where the “box” is irrelevant in the hiring process, but the key is establishing a pathway. It starts with assessing your policies, because a company can build a workplace that is committed to open hiring.
Our talent practices must also recognize that all people have potential. We have to hire on what an applicant can bring to a company. We need to give formerly incarcerated people the space to thrive, the opportunity to create, and the tools to develop their potential. Collaborating with expert organizations, such as Exodus Transitional Community (where I’m a board member), can allow you to build a hiring program aimed at recruiting, developing, and promoting formerly incarcerated people. It’s not enough to meet number goals. Companies will fail to change their talent make-up and retention if they don’t design infrastructure to support all employees.
Second-chance hiring is not preferential treatment; it’s equal treatment through the elimination of unnecessary systemic barriers. This work is most effective when you start at the ground floor, bringing people together, addressing misconceptions and concerns, and then creating opportunities for more employees to get involved.
Codesign programs and platforms with justice organizations
Finally, we need to go out of our way to create solutions with organizations that have believed in and fought for the rights of incarcerated people for decades, many of which are helmed by formerly incarcerated people themselves.
At R/GA, we’ve had a lot of success with this approach of partnering with nonprofits to address other social justice issues recently. For example, in 2019, R/GA worked with Planned Parenthood to design and launch “Roo High School“ to help high schoolers get medically accurate sex education in a supportive, positive environment that took the stigma out of asking intimate, personal questions.
We can do the same thing with nonprofits focused on open hiring and ending mass incarceration. If formerly incarcerated people have a seat at the table, like I do at R/GA, we have the foundation to build strong hiring programs and cultivate opportunities for our formerly incarcerated neighbors, family, and friends.
Ashish Prashar is the Global CMO at R/GA and a justice reform activist. He sits on the board of Exodus Transitional Community, Getting Out and Staying Out, Just Leadership, Leap Confronting Conflict and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice. @Ash_Prashar