The Co-Op That’s Changing The Employment Game For Ex-Cons

“There’s a lot of trauma we have to deal with when you go through the prison system.”

Image via MaxPixel.


A co-op in Washington, D.C., is reducing recidivism rates and unemployment among incarcerated people.

It’s practically common knowledge that the U.S. imprisons an inordinately high percentage of its citizens. More shameful still is the systemic racism that often guides this mass incarceration trend. According to the NAACP, the U.S. prison population more than quadrupled from 500,000 inmates in 1980 to more than 2.2 million in 2015. And despite making up a little more than 13% of the total U.S. population, African-Americans make up 34% of the U.S. correctional population.

Existing as the policy-making hub behind these disturbing trends, Washington, D.C., is also home to the highest incarceration rate in the country. Thankfully, D.C.-based co-op Tightshift Laboring Cooperative is aiming to change the tide by providing ex-prisoners with work training and employment opportunities. Owned and operated by former inmates, Tightshift works to dissolve the stigma associated with a criminal record. Those who join the co-op learn practical skills and participate in the organization’s cleaning, landscaping, and moving businesses. Those who complete a paid 1,000-hour work training program are then invited to buy into the co-op and become co-owners themselves.

Launching the collective was not easy, however, co-founder Juan Reid told Yes Magazine. After spending 14 years in prison for aggravated assault, Reid returned to his hometown traumatized and with few options for re-entering society. Local businesses turned him away on account of his record, and Reid ended up living in a van in the dead of winter. With the help of supportive family members, Reid eventually found a reliable place to stay and met his future Tightshift co-founder, Allison Basile. From there, things started to click.

Reid and Basile secured funding for their co-op through microgrants from Washington, D.C.’s Diverse City Fund and a crowdsourcing campaign. Reid visited local jails and canvassed city streets to recruit new members looking for steady work. While it hasn’t been a breeze getting former inmates to stick with the program, Reid and Basile have rapidly gained knowledge about the best approaches to reintroducing vulnerable populations to the workforce. Similarly to Reid, they’ve found many leave prison traumatized and ill-equipped to take care of themselves, let alone enter the workforce.

As a result, Reid and Basile launched a new crowdfunding campaign to raise money for extended support services for their members. As Reid explained to Yes Magazine, “There’s a lot of trauma we have to deal with when you go through the prison system. Our new apprentices will live in the healing center, so they can just work and heal.” Hopefully, Tightshift’s commitment to the incarcerated community can inspire us all to act with the same degree of empathy and optimism.


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