Building Stronger Prisoners
By W. Todd Johnson, Global Channel Leader of Entrepreneurship and Job-Creation,
Two years ago, the founder of an innovative reentry program called RISE shared some staggering statistics about the way we deal with the millions of people imprisoned in the United States. The vast majority return to prison within five years, with many reoffending within 100 days of release. Most telling, for me, is that the vast majority of recidivists are unemployed.
That’s something I could help with, so I began going into prisons equipped with Gallup’s tools for job creation and talent development. These powerful tools show workers, managers, and others how recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior can be productively applied.
It didn’t take long to learn that most of the prisoners had never been recognized, let alone celebrated, for their strengths.
As I helped incarcerated men and women find innate potential within themselves for the first time, my role evolved from frustrated bystander to strengths coach for incarcerated men and women.
More than 100 prisoners have since signed up for strengths coaching.
Prison officials welcome the assistance. “Imagine a world where every interaction you had was focused on your failures and your weaknesses. A world where your past behaviors seemed to define your future,” says Scott Frakes, director of correctional services in Nebraska. “Welcome to the world of convicted felons.”
“What if we could flip the script, and define these same people by their strengths?” Frakes asks. “Our prisons are filled with incredible talent and potential, and 95 percent of incarcerated people are coming back to the community. Employers need talented workers, and people reentering the community need meaningful work.”
Warden Denise Davison has been using Gallup’s CliftonStrengths tool to foster hope—as well as confidence and communication skills—among the women housed at the prison in York, Nebraska. You can feel the positive changes to the culture inside the prison as women begin to view themselves— and others—through a strengths-based lens.
One man I’ve worked with at the Nebraska State Penitentiary found his life’s purpose in building up the men around him, men who, unlike him, will eventually return to society. “I have served 38 years of a life sentence and find extreme purpose in helping the men in this prison learn about their strengths, so when they get out, they can reenter the employment market knowing what they are good at,” he says. “We walk the yard and talk about what contribution they can make to an organization based on their strengths.”
We know from 17 years of global polling that all most people want is a good job, and we know from our strengths research that the likelihood of gainful employment goes way up when you, and ideally your manager, know your strengths.
This is just as true for ex-offenders.
Employment, rooted in hope and confidence, is a leading factor in reducing recidivism and increasing well-being. As CliftonStrengths coach Curt Liesveld liked to say, “When we help a person discover how they can fulfill their role within the context of their own soul, we have added value to both the person and their organization.”