How D.C.'s Activists Are Solving Its Big Problem

by Cristina Maza

Growing up in the suburbs of Baltimore, Dan Carter and Julian Porto bonded over video games and their mutual love of computers. Years later, Dan works as a software engineer; Julian is an IT support consultant. In their free time, they collaborate to create mobile apps with a positive social impact that help solve problems. One of the first issues they wanted to address was one that touched both of their lives when they were young: Mass incarceration.

"We thought, if Dan can code great stuff, then I can design great stuff, then we have great products to work on," Porto explains to Bustle. "We wanted to do something a little bit more impactful, a little bit more ambitious."

Mass incarceration is an issue that shapes and defines American society in many ways. While the U.S. accounts for just 5 percent of the world's population, it has over 20 percent of its incarcerated inhabitants, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Scholars and pundits have spilled gallons of ink attempting to explain this phenomenon — and yet, regardless of the reason, it's no secret that mass incarceration disproportionately impacts low-income communities and people of color.

Sixty-seven percent of America's prison population identify as people of color, and around one out of 10 black men in their thirties is in prison, according to the Sentencing Project, a research group that advocates for criminal justice reform. What's more, recidivism is a common problem among former inmates due to the difficulties most face when trying to reenter society and find a job. According to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, around two-thirds of prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release.

Now, tech activists like Carter and Porto are choosing to use their skills to address some of society's most pressing problems — like issues as pervasive as mass incarceration. Some are making products that help former prisoners stay out of jail after returning home. Others aim to keep kids out of prison in the first place.

While technology isn't a golden ticket that can solve a problem as deep-seated as mass incarceration in one blow, the tech boom and start-up culture in D.C. are providing activists with new tools to address the many issues related to the problem.

In fall 2015, two D.C.-based nonprofits, Hatch International and D.C.+ Acumen, teamed up to host a hackathon with the goal of reducing the problem of mass incarceration. For Carter and Porto, the mission hit home. After inventing an app that would link former convicts with companies willing to hire them, Dan and Julian entered the competition and won.

"Once we stepped in [to the hackathon], I was actually taken back [sic] about how overwhelming the problem is," Porto tells Bustle, noting that "having a job reduces the recidivism rate by about 20 percent, and that's pretty significant."

"We wanted to make sure that we were being able to sell these people in a way that makes everyone look just like any other citizen," Porto adds. "And we wanted to match them with the best job."

The platform the two created, Just Hires, uses algorithms similar to those of a dating website — Carter describes it as a combination of Monster and Tinder — to match offenders with prospective employers. Both of the organizations that sponsored the hackathon are now helping Dan and Julian finalize the platform and get the project off the ground.

Hackathons And "Conscious Coding"

Meanwhile, in a modern co-working space in the center of Washington D.C., a sundry group of individuals sits on plastic chairs, nibbling crackers, chatting quietly, and tinkering with their smartphones. They've come to hear a group of local D.C. activists talk about whether the system of mass incarceration can be dismantled through an online platform, and to debate whether institutionalized racism directly affects D.C. laws.

Washington, D.C. has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country; it also has a budding tech industry. It's a combination that makes it a fitting location to discuss how tech can be used to solve issues related to mass incarceration.

"I really knew nothing about mass incarceration; I was kind of ignorant and naive to the entire process," Teresa Hodge, co-founder and director of Mission Launch, tells the audience during the event. "Well, when I was indicted, I had no choice but to give myself to this cause."

Hodge was convicted as a first-time, white-collar offender in 2006. She served a 70-month sentence in the Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia. Her experience transformed her understanding of the criminal justice system, but it wasn't until she was released from prison that she understood how high the cards are stacked against former offenders.

"I was not a person who was marginalized by an institution, a family, or education, or a community," Hodge says. "I became marginalized by the system of mass incarceration."

After her prison sentence ended, Hodge and her daughter founded Mission Launch to help make life easier for people leaving prison. In 2014, they hosted their first hackathon to explore how open and closed-source software can help people returning from prison become more self-sufficient.

In collaboration with other local tech start-ups, Mission Launch created an open-source software application that seals and expunges criminal records, and an open-source program that helps offenders locate relevant services. The organization now helps hundreds of former offenders throughout the D.C. area remain at home and reclaim their lives by putting them in touch with the services they need, Hodge tells Bustle.

Hope And Hip-Hop

Sage Salvo sits in the luminous hallway of the palatial redbrick Halcyon Incubator headquarters in Georgetown. A young man with a palpable air of confidence, he tells Bustle that he utilizes "my economics training and my background as a songwriter and a poet to building out a teaching process that'll increase literacy for kids."

Sage is the founder and president of Words Liive. The concept behind Words Liive was born when Sage began volunteering in local high schools, using hip-hop to teach young people about traditional literature. Over time, Sage developed a teaching methodology that employs hip-hop, social media text, and computer programming language to improve the reading and writing skills of students. His methods were so successful he decided to create an organization that would bring his teaching strategy to schools across D.C.

"Working with D.C. public schools," Sage estimates "a majority of students that have some type of direct connection with the penal system. ... If not them themselves," he continues, "either a relative or someone close to them [has] some type of connection with the penal system."

Sage sees literacy as a tool to give kids the opportunity to avoid the criminal justice system. Young people who are literate are less likely to fall into the prison system — not just because they are more likely to find employment, but also because they have new ways of thinking about the world and solving problems, Sage says. According to the literacy research group Begin to Read, 85 percent of all juveniles who interact with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate, and over 60 percent of all prison inmates cannot read.

Sage uses songs by artists like Jay-Z and Kanye West to teach grammar. "Usually the program ends with the students recording their own original compositions in class," Sage explains, "like a simulation of a real studio session." Through the use of technology, "I can quickly turn that into a MP3 and literally email it to the kid right there. [Students] will leave that class ... and then listen to their own recording that they just did. ... They're gonna go share it, and then blast it and send it to their friends and put it on Vine and Instagram."

Words Liive is in the process of launching an application that teachers can use to steam lesson plans and adopt Sage's methods in their classrooms.

Start-Ups And Social Entrepreneurs

Believe it or not, Washington D.C., best known as a buttoned-up city for lobbyists and lawyers, is increasingly peppered with innovation hubs and incubators filled with millennial tech entrepreneurs punching away at keyboards. "All these problems — mass incarceration, poverty, lack of access to quality education — they're all kind of intertwined in one big problem," Mariella Paulino tells Bustle.

Paulino is a fellow at Code for Progress, a D.C.-based non-profit that teaches women and people of color computer programming skills to solve social problems. "The question is: How we can teach someone the skills that they need so that they can focus exclusively on fixing one problem?" she says.

With thousands of people expected to leave the prison system this year, one thing is certain: These skills will be in high demand.

Images: Courtesy of Hatch International (4), Words Liive, Sage Salvo