The global health crisis is exposing the failures of our criminal justice system. With 2.3 million people in prison, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. More than 80% of those who are released will return to prison within eight years. Four out of five women who’ve been incarcerated are mothers. Safe distancing complicates re-entry and access to resources for those being released, and further isolates those who remain in prison. Those in prison need a voice for change and, more importantly, a real opportunity to succeed.

Michelle Cirocco is using her platform as the Executive Director of the Televerde Foundation — and as someone once incarcerated — as a testament to the power of giving people a second chance. She’s hosted a TEDx talk in Perryville prison and celebrated the First Step Act with the President at the White House.

In this week’s Leading Through Change event, Cirocco shares how Televerde, a non-profit organization providing personal and workforce development skills to incarcerated women, is changing the life trajectory for her and thousands of other women. Our conversation provides lessons on the positive impact of providing second chances, and the mindset shift we need to truly help those living on the margins of our society to reach their full potential. 

The following are highlights from our conversation with Cirocco, in her words. They have been lightly edited for clarity.


Purpose built on technology

“That's how we stop the cycle — by providing people with employment that leads to something better.”

“Televerde was founded to provide women in prison with jobs, training, education, and opportunity while they are incarcerated, and then empower them to have a meaningful and rewarding career after their release so they stay out of prison forever. That's how we stop the cycle — by providing people with employment that leads to something better — a better life for themselves, their families and their children, and then the communities where we live.”

“We provide sales, marketing and technology services for the biggest technology companies in the world. Our company was built on the idea that the technology industry would be more accepting of our business model and more willing to employ women with a non-traditional background. It's really the fabric of our business.”


The power to change lives

“They believe in themselves. They can learn and grow and, therefore, they are worthy.”

“We've utilized this unique workforce to deliver over $8 billion in revenue for the biggest and best companies in the world. Our success is ultimately propelled by the success of our people. The 3000 women who have worked for Televerde over the past 25 years have achieved great success — a 5.4% recidivism rate, 94% employment, which is 50% higher than the national average for incarcerated women. They earn salaries four times that of other formerly incarcerated women.”

“Laura, [one of our success stories], started as a caller doing lead generation, but was really interested in systems and technology. She is the first person to become certified as a Salesforce administrator while she was incarcerated. Since her release, she recently received a very lucrative offer from a company in her hometown of Denver, Colorado, as a Salesforce administrator and consultant.”

“They believe in themselves. They understand that they can learn and grow and, therefore, they are worthy. They can take advantage of the opportunities to have a better life."


Pivoting to the challenges of COVID-19

“Every challenge is a blessing in disguise.”

“Four out of five women in prison are mothers. Recognizing these women are likely to have people caring for their children while dealing with the stresses of COVID-19, we established the Televerde Families program to provide resources and support for the incarcerated women and the caregivers of their children. We also were able to provide 8000 masks to women in Arizona, Indiana and Florida. And with everybody sheltering in place, we had to develop and deliver virtual reentry programs. We were able to reach more of the women we work with, more quickly and more effectively, than we ever thought possible."


The biggest obstacles in prison reform

“We need people to forgive, rather than label them as a felon forever.”

We have to stop criminalizing societal problems and using prison to deal with issues we don’t understand, like homelessness, addiction, and mental health. We've got to change the way we treat people while they're incarcerated. We have to provide them with the programs to address the issues that got them there in the first place, as well as training, education, and opportunities that will enable them to successfully join and succeed in the workplace upon release. 


Doubling down on diversity and inclusion

“We have to recognize the difference between stigma and reality.”

The time is now for companies to double down on their diversity and inclusion efforts and ensure that people with criminal records are included because they’re often the most overlooked. The biggest challenge is changing the mindsets of people to make this part of their business strategy.

They are a viable and valuable talent force. They're creative and entrepreneurial, and they're people who had a desire for upward mobility in their life but just didn't have the opportunity. We need to tap into that talent and then provide them with the opportunities to achieve their potential.”


Moving from hope to action

“It was a chance for me to rebuild my life,” recalls Cirocco of the job opportunities and future offered by Televerde while she was serving her sentence in an Arizona prison. She’s hopeful that telling her story will open minds and move others to act. “That’s how we solve this challenge — one mind, one person at a time.” To learn more, watch the full interview with Michelle Cirocco at the link below.

This conversation is part of our Leading Through Change series, providing thought leadership, tips, and resources to help business leaders manage through crisis. Prior video interviews include: