Former professional basketball player Seth Sundberg tried to trick the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) out of $5 million in 2008, and the results did not pan out too well for him. After his arrest and trial, during which Sundberg refused to return about $2.4 million of that refund check to the IRS, he was convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to almost seven years in prison. He was released from federal prison after five years, and as is the case with most released felons, employment opportunities were scarce.
Sundberg’s new venture is an attempt toward offering the formerly incarcerated a chance at work and redemption. The lack of jobs for ex-convicts is a large part of why over two-thirds of released prisoners find their way back into a correctional facility within three years; that figure surges to 75 percent within five years of release from a correctional facility.
According to U.S. government statistics, approximately one in 36 American adults, or 2.8 percent of citizens 18 years of age or older, are currently incarcerated across the country. An additional 4.7 million are either on parole or probation. The U.S. justice system is especially punishing toward minority communities: While one in 106 whites are in prison, for Hispanics that rate is one in 36 and the incarceration rate increases to about one in 15 for African Americans. One in three black men, in fact, can expect to spend time behind bars at some point in their lifetime.
Organizations across the political spectrum, from the Wall Street Journal to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), agree that the legal system is tilted against people of color: A federal government survey found that blacks tend to receive prison sentences 20 percent longer than that of whites. Within the federal prison system and in 13 states, the percentages of blacks serving life sentences is over 60 percent; at schools, blacks were three times more likely and Hispanics twice as likely to be arrested compared to white kids.
So, once someone is released from prison, the prospects for rebuilding one’s life are overall bleak. To that end, Sundberg’s experience has led him to launch Prison Bars, which aims to market healthful snack bars while giving a chance for those recently released from prison to reintegrate into society.
Other companies with a similar social-enterprise mission exist across the U.S. Greyston Bakers, a supplier to Ben & Jerry’s, has long hired former prisoners at its Yonkers, New York, operation. Dave’s Killer Bread in Portland, Oregon, has a similar story about finding redemption in making healthful food products. Meanwhile, more consumers have become outraged at the thought of prison labor used to create consumer goods and food products. Whole Foods, for example, earned scorn last year when it was revealed that some of its tilapia was raised by prisoners in Colorado.
Nevertheless, while more Americans realize the ravenous U.S. prison system keeps incarcerating more people with dubious long-term results, many are not still thrilled with the idea of buying products made by ex-cons. When asked if the name Prison Bars was too jarring (the company started out with the name Inside-Out Bars), a company spokesperson replied: “Prison Bars is deliberately designed to invite the question ‘what is that about?’ and open conversation for those partners and customers interested in the mission and back-story of the brand.” Noting that millions of Americans have been touched in one way or another by the criminal justice system, Prison Bar’s spokesperson added, “We believe that those who are willing to work and embrace their responsibilities deserve a chance for redemption.”
So far the company is a small outfit. Prison Bars employs five people, has three interns and four other workers are employed on a contract basis. The long-term goal is to hire 100 formerly incarcerated men and women, “and hire the best and brightest regardless of their criminal record,” said Prison Bar’s spokesperson. According to the company, the bars contain organic ingredients and are gluten- and GMO-free. Roasted peanut cranberry coconut and goji cacao bars will be available for shipment this summer, and will soon be sold at some Bay Area retail locations, too.
The oft-repeated saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results applies to the American prison system. More companies with a mission like Prison Bars, as well as additional companies willing to take the risk to hire those released from prison, are needed, however, if our society is ever going to break free from this cycle. Instead of families and communities, the only mass incarceration winners so far have been politicians seeking to score easy points with voters and the nearly $5 billion privately-operated prison industry.
Image credit: Prison Bars