How Contact Centers Can Help Change Lives


How Contact Centers Can Help Change Lives

If you Google prison-staffed call centers, the coverage isn’t good and rightly so. Companies have misused prison labor in the contact center for little more than their own greed.

As a result, there is a black cloud that hangs over such contact centers today. The sheer mention of it is automatically associated with American slavery and exploitation—without any further investigation or follow-up.

But I’m here to tell you that prison contact centers can be launching pads to growth and transformation for the incarcerated men and women who staff them.

The Problem

America’s obsession with incarceration has saddled between 70-100 million people (that’s one in three adults) with a criminal record.

And of the 650,000 men and women released from prison annually, the overwhelming majority are worse off than when they went in.

Why? Well, the world has moved on without them, particularly when it comes to technology, and most prisons are equipped to correct rather than to rehabilitate.

As a result, these individuals aren’t qualified for jobs. The lucky few who have access to prison programs that prepare them for release struggle to find employment because their criminal pasts becomes a scarlet letter, denying them opportunity at every turn.

The outcome of this mess is that more than 75% will return to prison within five years. That is, after committing crimes and ruining lives that in too many cases could have been avoided.

The way to help fix this horrible pattern is through on-the-job training and education…while in prison. And this can be done successfully with for-profit companies leading the way.

As the CFO of a company, Televerde, that staffs mostly incarcerated workers, I’ve repeatedly seen the transformative power of a second chance. I’ve also observed how for-profit companies can generate profits while deeply caring about the greater good.

And I’m extending that statement to include our clients and partners that work tirelessly to ensure that the incarcerated women who make up our workforce have the opportunities and support they need to succeed while in prison: and after.

The Solution

Our women show up for work every day just as any other contact center employee. There are rows of workspaces that are separated by gray partitions.

Each workspace has a headset and desktop and is adorned with family photos, recognition certificates, quotes, and other personal mementos.

The smell of coffee brewing is constant as is the noise: people talking, phones ringing, printers going, etc.

Sounds familiar, right? The environment is exactly what you’d expect to see in any non-incarcerated office environment.

Our recruiting and hiring process is similar too. We promote open job positions in every prison yard (and our strongest recruiters are the women who already work with us).

Women who meet the criteria (high school diploma or GED and no behavioral infractions) apply and go through an extensive interview process. It isn’t easy, but everything we do is to prepare them for a professional job on the outside.

Life is hard and there are no handouts. We give specific feedback to those who don’t make the cut and typically they reapply and get the jobs on the second or third tries.

Our recruits who make it then enter a two-week boot camp where they take deep dives into the specific skills, technologies, and tools that will set them up for success during their tenure with us and beyond.

There are two immediate career paths our agents can take: inbound or outbound agent. To set the stage it is important to keep in mind that most of the women have never worked in this business before. It’s also the first time that anyone has ever given them opportunity.

For these reasons, many of our agents lack confidence, which makes inbound a great first step into the business world. They get to rack up quick wins, while building experience, knowledge, perspective, and awareness to make sound business decisions.

For those eager to take on more challenging work straight out of the gate, an outbound role fits the bill.

Whichever career paths our agents choose, they get on-the-job experience and can start to build professional networks that will stay with them in the future. Simply, they are treated the same as our non-incarcerated workforce.

In this role, they get to partner with some of the most recognized technology companies in the world, learning their products and services inside out, and then using technology and their soft skills to generate leads.

Whichever career paths our agents choose, they get on-the-job experience and can start to build professional networks that will stay with them in the future. They are paid a fair market hourly wage (we are the highest paid employer in every prison). Simply, they are treated the same as our non-incarcerated workforce.

Addressing the Perception

There is a perception that incarcerated individuals pose greater security risks when interacting with customers and handling their information than those on the “outside” who never had been convicted of any crime.

This is unequivocally false.

Having said that, because we work in prison environments, we do have added levels of security in place in accordance with the Department of Corrections in each of the states where we operate.

We have appropriate security measures to prevent our clients’ personal data from being accidentally lost, used, or accessed in an unauthorized way, altered, or disclosed.

This is what allows our agents to deliver an end-to-end, closely monitored, omnichannel experience that optimizes business results for the clients with whom we partner.

Changing Lives in the Contact Center

Through the contact center, we deeply invest in the agents’ professional development.

We teach them business acumen and the art of sales and marketing. We expose them to the most sought-after technology, certifying them in solutions like Salesforce, Marketo, and Outreach.

It’s this type of learning that not only helps these women do their jobs well but also makes them more competitive in the job market once they are released. They are tightly connected to our corporate team, participate in all company recognition programs and meetings, and go through annual performance reviews with everyone else.

We also have career pathing into every area of the company. You start out as an outbound agent and want to move into Marketing? We can make that happen. We have women in every role and function of our company who began their careers in prison…yes, even in the C-suite!

And for the wrap-around support services that are so critical as women transition out of prison, we also have a separate non-profit organization, the Televerde Foundation, that provides a full suite of services (mentoring, career readiness, life skills training, financial literacy, job placement).

The contact center becomes a continuous learning environment where women are intentionally prepared to reenter society as consummate leaders, caregivers, and business professionals.

And it works! Over the past 26 years that Televerde has been in business, we’ve graduated more than 3,500 women with a recidivism rate of 5.4% (the three-year national recidivism rate in the U.S is a staggering 68%). Many of our graduates have also shared their stories in Contact Center Pipeline and other industry events.

Prison-run call center isn’t always a dirty game. It can be a place where one of the most disempowered communities transforms into sales and marketing stars, creating a pipeline of talent and potential that your company can one day hire.

Jill Barnard

Jill Barnard is the chief financial officer for Televerde, a global partner supporting marketing, sales and customer success for B2B businesses around the world. Nine of Televerde’s 12 call centers are staffed entirely by women incarcerated in U.S. prison facilities.