Carla Harris: Every year, more than 600,000 people are released from U.S. prisons. Within 3 years, two out of the three of those individuals will be rearrested and more than half will be sent back to prison.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Today is a tale of two Marcuses who are both working to reduce America's recidivism rate. First, we'll hear from entrepreneur Marcus Bullock about his reentry journey.
Marcus Bullock: Job after job, they would disqualify me immediately when I checked that box that said, “Yes, I had been convicted of a felony.”
Carla Harris: And later we'll hear from Lockstep Ventures Managing Partner, Marcus Glover.
Marcus Glover: The reality is that people make mistakes. And so the question is to what degree or another do we create a place in our workforces for people who may have made a mistake?
Carla Harris: Welcome to Access and Opportunity, I'm your host Carla Harris. And we're telling the stories of individuals working to drive change within their communities. We provide context about systematic inequities and share tangible examples of how ideas around access and opportunity are being made real every day.
Carla Harris: It's 1996, and fifteen year old Marcus Bullock just got moved up to starting shooting guard for his high school basketball team.
Marcus Bullock: I grew up in an area where everybody argued about Jordan in a barbershop, and we all took that conversation straight back to my elementary school playground. And then eventually, my elementary school got a budget to be able to put backboards and rims on our outdoor courts. That's when I learned how to perform a crossover that would eventually land me into feeling like I had the opportunity to potentially be the next NBA superstar.
Carla Harris: Marcus was one step closer to achieving his ultimate hoop dream.
But instead of getting ready for the state championships that year, he was in a Virginia courtroom awaiting a judge's sentence. He and a teammate had been caught stealing a car to sell for parts.
Marcus Bullock: It would be this one moment of, you know, me making a horrible decision and saying, “Oh snap, we going to carjack a guy” to now me hearing a judge sentence me to eight years in maximum security prisons.
Carla Harris: Tried as an adult, young Marcus found himself in a Virginia state prison with inmates decades older than himself.
His new reality was a tough pill to swallow.
Marcus Bullock: The problems that I would now have didn't mimic the same problems that some of my best friends had at Suitland High School. When I would call home and listen to them, talk about preparing to go to homecomings and prom and senior trip, I'm on a collect call from a prison, hoping that I can go to commissary next week to be able to buy my crackers and tuna fish. And it was challenging for me to be able to really wrap my head around the possibility that I would actually have to serve all eight of those years.
Carla Harris: If he served his full sentence, Marcus wouldn't be released until the age of 23, but he hoped that good behavior would grant him early release. To hedge his bets, he asked an older friend how many years he had served so far.
Marcus Bullock: And when he told me he's been there for 31, I'm thinking about the two that I've done, and I'm like, “Yo, if they would keep him in here for 31 years, then clearly they would keep me in here for eight.” I mean, my heart dropped to my toes.
Marcus Bullock: That's when things started to shift and to get dark for me.
Carla Harris: With little hope for his future, Marcus began fighting, therefore cycling in and out of solitary confinement. Concerned about the path down which her son was headed, Marcus's mother used one of her weekend visits to offer him a lifeline.
Marcus Bullock: She's like “Marcus, I'm going to make a promise to you today that I’m going to write you a letter or send you a picture every day for the next six years of this prison sentence, to ensure that you know that you're thought about and that you're loved. And I want you to see a glimpse of what my world looks like so that when you come home, you're connected to it.”
Carla Harris: The promised consistency of Ms. Bullock's letters and notes would become an unexpected crucial step in Marcus's reentry journey.
Marcus Bullock: I never would believe that my mom's letters and photos would do and become what they became in my life. It gave me a window into the world, so I was able to see life through her lens. And it was an interesting phenomenon because now as the world was changing and evolving, I was able to evolve and change with it.
Carla Harris: In 2004, serving his full sentence, Marcus was officially released from prison.
He was fortunate to have a room waiting for him at his mother's house, and his mom helped him find his financial footing, driving him to banks to set up checking and savings accounts.
Carla Harris: Marcus knew he was lucky in this regard. Finding stable housing as a convicted felon isn't easy and plays a major role in recidivism. A 2019 paper from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition reports that formerly incarcerated individuals without stable housing are 11 times more likely to return to prison.
But another major barrier to successful reentry is finding employment. And try as she might, not even Ms. Bullock could solve this problem.
Marcus Bullock: I applied for 41 jobs that told me no. I applied to warehouse jobs, clerical warehouse jobs, jobs at shoe stores, in the banking spaces, at grocery stores, jobs in all of the big malls in my area.
I mean, in the state of Maryland, I couldn't be a real estate agent. It didn't matter how hard I tried in my real estate class. Once I got to the exam room and I submitted my application after taking a test and getting all the questions right, I was given a 1-800-number that would lead me to a phone call that said that I wasn't able to qualify to be a real estate salesperson in the state of Maryland. I'm like, ‘Well, ma’am, my felony conviction has nothing to do with any real estate transactions or financial transactions. It's something that I'm not proud of, but it's something that I'm very excited to be able to get behind me so that I can continue to contribute to my home and my community. I did my time.’
But job after job, they would disqualify me immediately when I checked that box that said, ‘Yes, I had been convicted of a felony.’
Carla Harris: The search took its toll on Marcus and made it tempting for him to revert back to his old ways in order to support himself.
Marcus Bullock: But that thought was fleeting because I knew that there was no possible way that I could put my mother through that again. There were family members who believed in me and I had to figure out how to never go back in that direction.
Carla Harris: Marcus refused to be anything but optimistic. In his mind, if he could survive prison, then he genuinely believed that the day he'd get hired would come. That's what kept Marcus motivated to keep applying.
And while filling out his 42nd job application, he noticed something different about the criminal background question.
Marcus Bullock: They asked have you been convicted of a felony, comma within the last seven years. And I was able to think back before answering that question, like, ‘Wait a minute, I just served an eight year prison sentence. My conviction was definitely over seven years ago.’ And so I was able to say, ‘No, I wasn't convicted of a felony within the last seven years.’ And that would be the job that would finally give me an opportunity.
Carla Harris: Marcus could at last say that he was gainfully employed. He got a job mixing paint, and that would end up doing more than just provide a steady source of income. It would also inspire Marcus to eventually start his own painting business.
Marcus Bullock: We started from painting kitchens and living rooms, and then shutters, and then exterior faces of homes all the way through growing to bid on contracts, like the one that we won at BWI Airport or National Press Club or Georgetown University, or Howard University.
Carla Harris: As Marcus's business grew, he saw a need to ramp up staffing and hire people quickly. And he happened to turn to the same pool of candidates that are often overlooked and excluded from America's workforce.
Marcus Bullock: Folks would come into my office and they going through the job interview process, and they're like, ‘Yo, look, before we go any further, I just wanna let you know, just real quick, you know, I got a felony, it was something that happened a long time ago…’ I'm like, ‘Oh, ho, ho, ho, you got a felony? Bro. I got three. Like, what you talking about? Like, dude, I don't care about that.’ Do you know how to be able to install this wood 16 inches off center? Are you going to ensure that we use the right grout every time? It wasn't until we had hired about 18 people before I realized that 16 of the people on my team all have felony convictions, just like me. These are dope people that I like to hang around. They're honest. They show up every day, they work harder than everybody else that has ever worked on my team before. And I can trust them.
Carla Harris: While Marcus was organically creating these real second chance opportunities for other formerly incarcerated individuals, he began thinking about how he could help his friends that were still in prison.
Marcus Bullock: You know, we were building this incredible construction company that gave me access to the world. And it gave me an opportunity to be able to build onto the dreams and aspirations that I had that I began to build when I was sitting in a prison cell. And that kind of excitement is sharable. And I wanted to be able to figure out how to connect my friends that lived in the cells with me back to those experiences.
Carla Harris: Marcus sought to answer the question, "how can I do for my friends what my mother's daily letters and photos had done for me?"
Marcus Bullock: When I didn't see a solution that will allow me to be able to do that quickly in the app store, I set off on a path to go build what eventually became Flikshop.
Carla Harris: What simply started as a way for Marcus to connect with his incarcerated friends grew into a service that people from all over the U.S. wanted to use.
Through Flikshop's technology, users are able to take a picture, write a quick message, and ship that picture and message as a postcard to any person in any cell anywhere in the country.
Carla Harris: Flikshop connects people in prison to their family members and other community resources prior to their release so that they have the best chance at successfully transitioning back into society.
Marcus Bullock: The reality of it is that I did have access and I did have social capital. I want all of the men and the women that are sitting in cells around the country to know that you are worth it and you're loved. You're visible. I see you. That there's some place that is waiting for you on the other side of a prison cell, the same way that my mom did for me.
Carla Harris: In 2018, Marcus stopped running his construction business to focus on Flikshop full-time. To date, Flikshop has connected more than 170,000 families to their loved ones in over 2,700 facilities across the country.
Marcus Bullock: We're really excited about continuing to leverage our data and our tech to be able to connect not only our families, but other employers, government agencies that want to be able to support people that are in these prison cells, whether it be around creating hiring commitments for people with felony convictions, or even just announcing to them that they have an empathetic ear that is advocating for their success after they return back to their community.
Carla Harris: Marcus Bullock is committed to creating clear pathways to success for these individuals during and after incarceration because he knows that that's what it will take to reduce recidivism here in the U.S.
Which brings us to our other Marcus: Marcus Glover, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Lockstep Ventures and a leader who sees real opportunity in breaking down the barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated folks.
I sat down with Marcus Glover to discuss factors that exacerbate recidivism and to learn how our economy, our businesses, and our community members most impacted can benefit from investing in this unique talent pool.
Carla Harris: Marcus, thank you so much for being here with me today. It's a pleasure to have you on the show. And are you ready? Can we jump in?
Marcus Glover: Well, the pleasure is all mine and I am absolutely ready to go.
Carla Harris: Alrighty. So let's start with you briefly telling me a little bit about yourself and your current role at Lockstep Ventures.
Marcus Glover: I feel in many ways, a bird of your feather, Carla. I am a fund manager, but I'm also a father. I'm a former creative director. And more importantly, I'm a community builder and someone who believes in second chances.
Carla Harris: Yes, I hear that. Speaking of second chances, what got you initially involved with criminal justice reform?
Marcus Glover: It was about 10 years ago that I began my journey to learning about systems of incarceration and, you know, this deeply impactful system that has so profoundly affected communities of color. And at that point I was in my early forties and I just felt that as a man of color, I didn't really know anything about what was so deeply impacting our people. And, you know, it was books like Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow that I began to just start to educate myself. It wasn't seeing news headlines that was giving me the deepest sense of what was impacting our world. It was beginning to go inside prisons and jails and see the reality from the inside. Honestly it was more like school because it was a real eye opening opportunity for me to really see the realities of prisons and jails.
Carla Harris: Well, you know, Marcus, there's a lot of data around prison, prison reform, social justice reform, the number of people, and the demographics of people who are incarcerated, you know. And let's talk about one specific piece of data: according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 600,000 people are released from prison every year, but within three years of their release, two out of three, are actually rearrested and at least 50% are reincarcerated. Can you shed some light from what you've learned on the circumstances that make recidivism the norm rather than the exception?
Marcus Glover: Let's just take a minute to really ground in exactly this behemoth that is our system of mass incarceration. The numbers don't lie. This is a system that is valued at about $180 billion a year, $180 billion a year. That's the brick and mortar jails. That's the labor force, corrections officers, cooks. It's the food and facilities management companies and transportation providers. It is the all encompassing number that goes into everything, including beds. And so as a business person, you have to begin to ask for that 180 billion that we spend each year, what's the ROI? And as you just said, two out of three people who were formerly incarcerated will be rearrested and perhaps return to jail. I've even seen numbers as high as 80% in five years or less. And so, you know, with a $180 billion yearly spend, that's about the market cap of some of our popular brick and mortar stores. You know, we're in banking, Carla, we're in finance. If you saw an annual report for a $180 billion market cap company, and on the last page of the annual report, it said, ‘But everything that you read about our success, 80% of the goods that are bought in this brick and mortar store are returned,’ what would we say? We'd say that's a failed company. And so that is what the ROI looks like when we think about prisons and jails, right? That recidivation number.
They call it department of corrections, and yet as many as two out of three people were returned back. And so that is the nature of the broken system of mass incarceration. Some people would say it was built for people to be rearrested. What are the key factors now that people recidivate? Obviously there has been a lot that has been exposed around technical violations. You know, people that will get a parking ticket or jump a turnstile in a subway and they're rearrested for another long sentence. That's about 25% of the reason why people are rearrested. The other sadly is often lack of stable housing and lack of stable employment. And I don't think there could be anything worse than a person having to go back to jail simply because they don't have a roof over their head or a job.
Carla Harris: That is such a great point. And you know, I got to tell you, Marcus, I've never heard anybody use the analogy around a business. So that's an interesting lens for us to look at. And you’re right. Most of us would call that business a failure if 80% of the goods were actually returned.
Carla Harris: How do you think the re-entry process should begin to ensure a successful transition from prison back into society?
Marcus Glover: Well, that is something that is very near and dear to my heart. When it comes down to re-entry, it doesn't matter what you did, the reality is that 95% of people who are behind bars, they will come back into community. And so out of the 2.3 million people behind bars in some form of detention, they will release out. So the question really belongs to society. What do we want for those people who are reentering back into society? Do we want them to be better prepared, have better tools that they can go on and lead productive lives, gainfully employed. And so the question comes down to this: do you want to spend $30,000 a year giving someone a job or do you want to spend $30,000 a year incarcerating someone? And the reality is that here to this point in our country, we've done a really not great job of providing while incarcerated the access to things like education, career services, career training. And there is nothing but time on people's hands. And there needs to be a greater momentum towards giving people the training and then making sure we de-stigmatize returning citizens when they come out.
Carla Harris: So if I can summarize what I think you said is there are sort of two steps to how you might change the re-entry process. One is while someone is incarcerated, have training programs that get them ready for the future jobs so that when they get out in two years, five years, 20 years, they can at least have some knowledge and be able to function when they get back into society and be able to engage, that's number one. And number two is some reform around the employment process as well that will give them a shot, if you will, of being evaluated on how they interview and being evaluated on the skills that they have and not necessarily on the mistakes that they made.
Marcus Glover: That's absolutely correct. And you've seen things like the Ban the Box movement. You know, where someone walks into a retailer or otherwise, they fill out a two or three page application, and then at the end of that application, there's a box, which says, ‘Do you have any prior felonies or misdemeanors?’ And if you check ‘Yes’ then that application up to this point has traditionally just been thrown out. And that is where you get the Marcus Bullocks of the world who have to spend 41 chances to just try to get into the workforce. And so there needs to be greater emphasis towards de-stigmatizing people who have been impacted and more importantly, fair chance hiring, which is seeking opportunities to recruit and train from talent pools of formerly incarcerated people.
Carla Harris: Can you define further for people who haven't heard of fair chance hiring or open hiring, the model? Because assume we have some CEOs that are listening to this and you know, how might they think about that?
Marcus Glover: Sure. So there's two sort of predominant practices. One is called open hiring where you just make that job available to anyone, you know, no holes barred. The other practice is called fair chance hiring. And fair chance hiring is a way of, very by design, you are specifically looking to hire people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. And fair chance hiring is such that what you do is you interview somebody most likely, but you won't run a background check until after a job offer has been extended. And so it is a way of removing some of the stigmas and barriers that have been traditionally used.
Carla Harris: Okay, so if you like the candidate, the candidate successfully answers the questions, they give you confidence that they understand what the key success factors are, and they can hit the ground running, then you give them the offer. And then if you run the check and you find out that they've been incarcerated, you are therefore saying that that's not enough of a reason for you to pull the offer if you will, and you're not making the offer contingent upon that.
Marcus Glover: That's absolutely right. And, you know, look at this point in 2022, there are between 70 and 100 million people who have some form of a criminal record. That is, out of a country of 340 million people, that is nearly one in three. And so the reality is that people make mistakes. And so the question is to what degree or another do we create a place in our workforces for people who may have made a mistake? Now, I don't for one second want to say that some form of figuring out what is good for your company is not important because it absolutely is. So for example, in trucking, if someone was behind the wheel and had a DUI, or maybe even sadly a vehicular manslaughter, maybe that person isn't the right candidate for that job, right? So it is really important to figure out what end of the spectrum works for your organization. But on a macro view, here is a very, very talented workforce that we could do a better job to embrace.
Carla Harris: So that leads us right into the next part of the conversation. In 2020, you created Lockstep Ventures in part to help solve this issue around recidivism. So can you say to our listeners what Lockstep Ventures is, what was your passion around engaging in the gaps that we've been talking about in our society?
Marcus Glover: So, you know, at the beginning of our talk, we talked about the numbers and the numbers just don't lie. This is a system which has a commercial model, which is largely extractive, taking capital and resources away from poor and minority communities, keeping people behind bars punished for long sentences. And out of that, there is tremendous economic incentive for many parties involved. And so using resources that we have all had, people have been involved in philanthropic efforts to change this system and people having been involved in activist efforts to change this system. And what became very clear and important to me was that there had to be a way to incentivize entrepreneurs to scale enterprises that would empower people who have been impacted to change this system that we know it. And how do we change that system? We make it such that people don't go back into that system. So that is one of the reasons why Lockstep exists. It is a social justice focused venture fund where we invest in entrepreneurs who are thinking about ways that we can create equity in minority communities.
You and other Carlas have led the charge in showing how our greatest areas of disparity when we address them, there is a tremendous economic incentive. So that is a sort of a philosophy that we call, Disparity to Prosperity and we are looking broadly speaking in education and health and wealth and in justice reform. We believe that the ability to close prisons and jails, lower the number of beds inside, there's actually an economic incentive towards getting people more gainfully employed and more productive in the economy.
Carla Harris: It sounds like you're arguing Marcus for our economy and our country, not just the economic incentive for the individual, the entrepreneur, him or herself. Right?
Marcus Glover: Well, absolutely. You know, we know that an economy that has too few workers to grow at a robust pace, it's an economy that teeters at the edge of recession, right? And we're now facing the great resignation where there is worker shortages. Yet here is this talent pool that is largely untapped.
Carla Harris: And this is a great playbook point for our listeners, where would you argue is the opportunity for returns in addressing the issue of recidivism specifically?
Marcus Glover: Well there's a tremendous future of work opportunity. There's all of the innovative tools around future of work, but there's just the simple idea of deepening the talent pool that is a provocative idea. That will create an economic return. There are a growing field of companies that see the key to their success is deepening and widening their workforce to include formerly incarcerated people. So a lot of what we think about at Lockstep is how to take the unemployed and the underemployed and help them to reach their true economic potential. That's good for them. That's good for our world.
Carla Harris: You have said that your company Lockstep Ventures will hold all of its portfolio companies accountable in executing open and inclusive hiring practices. So how are you going to make sure that that happens is the first part of the question. The second part of the question, what are you doing to infect the VC community around this same thinking?
Marcus Glover: So we believe that the character of venture, and Carla you know this is as well as anyone, it is not just about creating outsize returns, but it is the moral obligation to look at the cultural impact of the investments that we're making. And we look at our justice issues and we realize that they have been impacted by capital. And so we’re encouraging other venture funds and PE funds to take a look at the way we invest. The last year alone through venture and private equity, there were about 250,000 new jobs that were created in the economy. And so we look at offering an ethic around fair chance hiring, which is to say every company that we invest in, we ask them to pledge to use fair chance hiring. So that five hundred thousand, million dollar check to a seed company, it's also going to come with a fair chance hiring rider. And that rider states that upon accepting the conditions in this term sheet, we will also look for opportunities to hire from the population of returning citizens.
Now, what impact could that have on our country? How could we in the private markets maybe even lower recidivism through our investments? So that's the practice that we're standing up at Lockstep. We're holding ourselves accountable and the ventures that we invest in to see where they can hire from this talent population. And we're making the tools that we are using for ourselves available to all of the other interests and entities in our industry.
Carla Harris: So to entrepreneurs and businesses that are listening right now, what guidance or advice would you have for them in regards to be more inclusive of this community?
Marcus Glover: Well the first thing I would suggest is that we all must realize we have to change the narrative. There's no them and us. There’s no others. We're all one. And in that sense, talent can come from anywhere. This is a talent pool that is ready to go to work. And we either as enterprises or as investors, we can make more of our investments by considering this moral lens of widening our hiring practices. That's the first thing.
The second thing I would do is learn from vetted sources, places like Greyston Bakery, which has the center for open hiring. And they do trainings. They have, you know, tool kits, best practices on things to do. Another is an organization which I serve on the board of called Defy Ventures. And this is in my opinion, the definitive watering holes, the place to find great talent that have trained either behind bars or upon release and they are ready for a career. They're ready for a new chance in life.
Carla Harris: That is outstanding. Thank you for those resources. Alrighty Marcus Glover, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. It's been a pleasure.
Marcus Glover: It is entirely a privilege and before I leave it, I want to be the first person who probably ever said this to you, but I actually want to invite you to come to prison with me, to see some incredible women and men who are looking for a second chance in their lives and a chance to redefine themselves in their careers.
Carla Harris: Okay, I'm going to accept that invitation on the record.
Marcus Glover: Thank you so much.
Carla Harris: I want to thank both Marcus Glover, and Marcus Bullock for joining me on this episode of Access and Opportunity. What did you think of today's episode? Send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org. And to continue learning about individuals working to drive systematic change within their communities, subscribe to Access and Opportunity on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Thanks for coming along.