Last April, Google launched Grow with Google Career Readiness for Reentry, a program created in partnership with nonprofits to offer job readiness and digital skills training for formerly incarcerated individuals. As a part of an expansion, Google today announced that it’ll invest just over $8 million in organizations helping “justice-impacted” individuals, including the formerly incarcerated, enter the workforce.
Continuing its work with nonprofits including The Last Mile, Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), Defy Ventures, Fortune Society, and The Ladies of Hope Ministries, Google says that $4 million of the new roughly $8 million it’s investing will go toward Grow with Google Career Skills, aiming to help people impacted by the justice system develop career specializations. Nonprofits with which Google hasn’t previously collaborated will be able to apply for up to $100,000 in grants to “offer Google’s reentry skills training to their community.”
Meanwhile, Google.org, Google’s charitable arm, will provide $4.25 million in grants to assist state governments in reducing barriers to employment with Code for America’s Clear My Record tool, which uses an open source algorithm to review records and produce clearance motions. Other grants from Google.org will focus on connecting “justice-impacted” people with jobs through the National Urban League’s Urban Tech Jobs Program and Columbia University’s Justice through Code.
In an email interview with TechCrunch, Maal Ibrahim, racial and criminal justice lead at Google.org, said that it was always Google’s intention to bring the Career Readiness for Reentry program to scale. “There’s a real urgency to this work — more than 640,000 people are released from prison each year in this country, and nearly all of them could benefit from the digital skills and job readiness training we’re offering through our partners,” he added. “We co-created the program with five nonprofits who have a track record of successfully developing and delivering high-quality job training to returning citizens. After implementing the program in 2021 and getting partner feedback, we saw what works really well and how we can have more impact.”
The formerly incarcerated community faces many challenges, including a lack of digital skills. Inmates can go well over a decade without access to technologies like smartphones and only limited familiarity with the internet. For example, U.S. Department of Education data from 2014 showed that 62% of correctional educational programs in the country didn’t allow prisoners access to the internet.
Searching for jobs or making a resume using web tools is beyond the knowledge of some former inmates. According to a recent University of Kansas study, many women coming out of prison struggle with basic skills like protecting their online privacy. This lack of literacy, too, hinders ex-prisoners’ ability to take advantage of government services, which often require online applications.
Ibrahim asserts that programs like Career Readiness for Reentry can make a difference with a curriculum that’s designed to be integrated into the programming of nonprofit partners. “Given Google’s technological expertise, one of our focus areas is helping people learn digital skills,” he said. “[W]e believe that companies, nonprofits, and government working together can be a powerful force for good. That’s what we’re trying to facilitate here.”
Studies have shown that digital literacy can reduce recidivism, or relapse into crime. But there’s some reason for skepticism. When asked how many of the 10,000 formerly incarcerated people reached by Career Readiness for Reentry programming last year found a job, Ibrahim demurred.
Stymying efforts was the pandemic, which forced several of Google’s partner organizations including The Last Mile and Defy Ventures to shift from in-person to remote instruction. A Google spokesperson later told TechCrunch that, out of a survey of 400 Career Readiness for Reentry participants, 75% reported they had a job or were enrolled as a student somewhere by the end of the program.
Ibrahim argues the expanded program has the potential to make a lasting impact via a new embedded team of Google.org fellows who will work with nonprofits or civic organizations to build “tech solutions.” One of their first projects is an “end-to-end” automatic record clearance service built on top of the existing Clear My Record that they’ll work with Code for America to design, pilot, and implement.
Google’s lofty goal is to help 100,000 formerly incarcerated people build career skills by 2025. To achieve this, the tech giant will have to facilitate a massive expansion of access to digital literacy programs across federal and state penitentiaries. Underlining the challenge, New York State offered three programs with some degree of digital literacy training that capped out at 1,400 seats combined as of March 2020. There are over 77,000 people incarcerated in New York across the state and New York City correctional systems.
“Criminal records for many can be a life sentence to poverty, creating barriers to jobs, housing, education, and more,” Ibrahim said. “There are so many great organizations out there doing work in this space, but we know that no one organization will reach everyone in need … As we continue to refine and evaluate this work, we hope that we will be able to scale it further in the coming years.”