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Michelle Erdenesanaa headshot

This Solar Company Tackles Climate Change with Second-Chance Hiring

When a professor teaching at a state prison heard about the huge barriers to employment his students face when re-entering society, he left his teaching position to start a solar company focused on second-chance hiring.
The Crossroads Solar team.

The Crossroads Solar team. 

When Patrick Regan left his tenured professor position to start a solar panel company, many of his loved ones balked. He began planning the transition a few years earlier in a document titled “What to Do When Caitlin Graduates” — holding out until his daughter finished college. For nine years, he taught courses on the politics of climate change at the University of Notre Dame, where he was also associate director of the Environmental Change Initiative. But in 2019, he started to think about climate change from a new angle that involved another glaring social issue.

Individuals re-entering society after prison often face huge hurdles to employment. While teaching at Indiana’s Westville State Prison, Regan learned the difficulties of re-entry firsthand. “I was extolling the virtues of college education to 25 men dressed in jumpsuits and [covered in] tattoos. It was the quintessential highly-educated white guy talking about things that didn't quite fit,” Regan said. “One guy, Mark, said, ‘Well, the problem is, professor, your people won't hire us.’” 

In response, Regan founded Crossroads Solar, a solar panel company based in South Bend, Indiana. All of Crossroads’ 15 employees were formerly incarcerated, and Regan plans to double that number in the next month. As the solar industry grows with support from climate legislation within the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, Crossroads’ production capability is growing by four to five times, Regan told TriplePundit. The company’s stated goal is “to produce perfect solar modules with people who have made mistakes, and in the process revolutionize the way we think about crime and punishment and U.S. manufacturing capabilities.”

Crossroads manufactures solar panels for both individual and commercial use, made by humans with domestically sourced equipment and materials instead of mass-producing them abroad. Its products meet the same industry certifications and come with the same warranties as other panels while addressing many interwoven threads of environmental and social justice — including opening the doors and seeing people as people. Regan remembers a staff member’s father sitting in his office, crying, after his son was hired. “His father sat in my office and wept because his son has a chance to live a regular life outside,” he said. “Well, that's what we provide. It's in the DNA of the solar panels.”

Of over 50,000 people released from federal prison in 2010, no more than 40 percent were employed after over four years post-release, according to a 2021 Bureau of Justice Statistics report. These exorbitant numbers persist despite the fact that formerly incarcerated people tend to be more active in the job search process than the general population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative’s analysis. 

Grant* began working at Crossroads through a work release program, which allows people who are incarcerated to work outside of prison before their release date. Having been incarcerated as a teenager and released at 39 years old, he described the daunting task of re-entering society. “I struggled with it for years. What am I going to do when I get out? How am I going to survive? All I knew before prison, money-wise, was not a good way of getting money. I had never had a job,” Grant told 3p. “There are a lot of people who don't want to be viewed as a felon or an offender anymore … [but] as just somebody who made a mistake. You don't have to give me anything. Just let me have the ability to earn it.”

A criminal justice history reduces the likelihood of a hiring callback by 60 percent when disclosed on the job application — even in the case of minor and nonviolent crimes, according to a 2017 study. These apparent hiring biases inspired campaigns like Ban the Box, which calls for removing questions about an applicant’s criminal background from initial job applications and delaying background checks until applicants have a chance to show their qualifications. 

Despite her work experience and life before prison, Anne* still struggled to find a workplace open to hiring her. “Prior to my incarceration, I had never been in trouble,” she said. “Then I had an addiction that spiraled out of control in under two years. It doesn't matter who you were before [prison]. You start from scratch.” 

Amid countless rejections from employers after being released, Anne told her case manager, “I get why people go back to prison.” She has worked at Crossroads for a year and a half now, after learning about the company from a news article. If that hadn’t happened, “I can't tell you what I would be doing,” she said. 

Having employment and other basic needs met is shown to drastically reduce recidivism. After Hawaii implemented its Ban the Box law in 1998 — the first of 27 states and Washington, D.C. to do so — 57 percent fewer criminal defendants had repeat offenses, according to a 2014 study.  

Upon release, essentials like getting a driver’s license and opening a bank account hinge on having a means to make money and an address. The industries and jobs that are open to hiring formerly incarcerated people often don’t offer reasonable wages or resources to support re-entry, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Exploiting vulnerable workers contributes to a decline in the price of labor that affects the entire workforce. 

Crossroads’ leadership recognizes these patterns in labor and income inequality and maintains the CEO’s salary within 5 percent of what employees earn. “I pay myself functionally what I can pay my employees,” Regan said. “They're buying cars, going to the dentist, going out to the ball game, getting their children back after years of not having their children, they're going out on dates.”

For both Anne and Grant, working at Crossroads was a foundational step toward the rest of their lives. Working with people who understand the transition certainly helps. “The people I work with are like my family because they know what it's like to lose everything,” Anne said. “Being incarcerated really does something to your psyche. [Before], I was super outgoing, loud, always laughing. Being [at Crossroads] has brought that back out in me.”

The company’s practices point to a deeply human and pragmatic understanding of not only second chances, but also the interconnected web of our shared social issues — from climate change to recidivism. 

Regan’s point of view approaches this web with optimism. “I don't think … my role in life is to judge what is good and bad,” he said. “I'm just taking people who want to get it right after having made a mistake.”

*Last names omitted upon request. 

Image courtesy of Crossroads Solar

Michelle Erdenesanaa headshot

Michelle is a freelance writer with experience in international nonprofit work, arts and culture writing, and creative copywriting. She is particularly devoted to stories that highlight cultural expansion and our interdependence.

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