Building pathways between formerly incarcerated and non-incarcerated people

Photo Credit: Defy Ventures

“We believe that when people make mistakes, they deserve the opportunity to remake their lives.” — Barack Obama

This research case study explores the unknown, where empathy is a necessary asset. By utilizing generative design research methods, it uncovers the needs, goals, and perspectives of incarcerated individuals and translates the knowledge into opportunities. The research reveals misperceptions our society sees in incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in hopes to inspire the audience to empathize and take action.

To understand social judgments and cultural implications that affect self-esteem and self-actualization when re-entering society post incarceration.

Recidivism is a fundamental concept to the criminal justice system. It refers to the tendency for a convicted criminal to re-offend. The grim statistics of recidivism portray the deep systemic issues.
Within 3 years of release, about 2/3 of released prisoners are rearrested.
Within 5 years of release, about 3/4 of released prisoners are rearrested.
Of those rearrested, more than 1/2 are arrested by the end of the first year.

Once someone has entered the prison system, they more often than not become entrenched in the system for the rest of their life.

– Use stories as a platform for creating empathy and positive transformation.
– Open the door to technology within prisons and allow them a safe space to learn the basics of technology, especially the skills needed in obtaining a job and succeeding post-release. 
– Design workshops in partnership with Defy Ventures to help incarcerated people better visualize their future dreams and business goals.


10 Week Research Plan

Interviews + Field Observations

Chaderjian Youth Correction Facility

As a part of the research plan two separate screeners and discussion guides were made, and a total of 17 interviews were conducted with both formerly and currently incarcerated people, their children and their mentors. In addition to the interviews my team and I attended events and workshops organized by Defy Ventures and Listen for a Change and volunteered at a Chaderjian Youth Correction Facility.

User Interview Highlights

Interviews with Coss Marte (founder of ConBody), Tony Shavers (Shavers Family Foundation)


Synthesis Process

Framework and Visualization

As we listened to the stories shared of those affected by incarceration, we identified key components that influence personal development and successful reintegration post release. We uncovered five core elements from our interviews.


These five elements can be framed as

  1. Family Influence
    Family influence can be dichotomous.
  2. Punishment vs Rehabilitations
    Prioritizing punishment over rehabilitation contributes to recidivism.
  3. Kinship
    Kinship emerges from the shared prison experience, playing an integral role in post-prison life.
  4. Talent
    Former Felons can capitalize on their natural entrepreneurial skills to build legal businesses.
  5. Acceptance and Self-Esteem
    For those who successfully re-enter society, determination and motivation has outweighed discrimination.

These insights were also woven into the framework to better describe it. The framework can be used to understand how a person affected by incarceration has or has not been able to successfully reshape their new journey. By mapping an individuals story onto this framework we can identify components that might be missing. The missing components can be provided externally to enable wholistic development.

Working as a community to address this issue…

How might we build pathways between formerly incarcerated and non-incarcerated people to enable successful re-entry?

How might we guide formerly incarcerated people to visualize their futures and build successful careers and legal business’?


There are number of organizations working on the transformation of this system. The organizations whose work and mission correspond to our findings include:

NGO’s with similar mission

Therefore, the opportunities that we laid out are in support of the work these organizations are already doing- our goal was to amplify their efforts to encourage positive change.

Amplifying the existing workshop provided by Defy Ventures

Defy currently offers a suite of services including leadership development, entrepreneurship training, executive mentoring, and business support. Following the methods of design thinking we want to use design workshops to help incarcerated people better visualize their future dreams and business goals. Many of these individuals have no practical reference to create businesses. Through using the tools in the our design thinking quiver, we want to help them unveil their passions, and support the growth of their business ventures.

Open the door to technology within prisons

In our second area of opportunity, our focus is technology. With the support of an engineering team, we want to open the door to technology within prisons. Right now, incarcerated people don’t have access to technology due to security and cost concerns. By using Raspberry Pi and JPay technology, we can allow them a safe space to learn the basics of technology, especially the skills needed in obtaining a job and succeeding post release. As we all know, the ability to use computers is critical in today’s society — without technology access, incarcerated people won’t be relevant upon re-entry.

Building pathway

Providing a space to share stories, create empathy and mutual understanding to support incarcerated people by breaking the wall of discrimination for successful reintegration by writing a new narrative.


Word of mouth is the most powerful way of spreading awareness. Please share this article as well as the missions of organizations addressed in this case study to help raise awareness, and support existing organizations to end mass incarceration and cycles of recidivism.

All participants who were photographed and recorded, or who shared confidential information with the research team, were consented. This research was not performed to evaluate or judge. It was a learning opportunity, one that takes into account multiple perspectives and approaches them with empathy.

Team Members: Sneha Gokhale, Megan Melack

Author: Piril Akay

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