Prison Fellowship® has become one of the nation’s leading advocates for second chances, drawing the attention of government agencies, foundations, and businesses to the importance of providing opportunities for former prisoners. But what if people didn't need a second chance because—as children—they were given a first chance to succeed in life? Through many years of experience supporting children with incarcerated parents, Prison Fellowship has discovered that providing the right opportunities can help these kids overcome their challenging environment and thrive. A growing coalition of corporate and nonprofit partners have agreed with this approach, recognizing that providing both first chances and second chances is the best way to help communities affected by incarceration.
On Sept. 22, 2023, Prison Fellowship convened the first official gathering of the First and Second Chances Philanthropy Council. Held in Houston, Texas, the council’s inaugural summit drew leaders from a diverse group of companies, foundations, and nonprofits, all committed to finding ways to unlock the potential of those affected by incarceration. Prison Fellowship established the First and Second Chances Philanthropy Council, in collaboration with the Walmart.org Center for Racial Equity, for the purpose of building a coalition of partners to help disrupt cycles of incarceration and spark generational transformation.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
The council's work builds on the impact of Prison Fellowship's First Chance Network™, a group of organizations committed to supporting children who have a parent in prison through programs like Angel Tree®, which provides Christmas gifts, summer camp sponsorships, and year-round support to hundreds of thousands of kids each year. The council also seeks to advance second chances for the millions of people in America with a criminal record. Speaking at the beginning of the summit, Dr. Marvin Carr, director, Walmart.org Center for Racial Equity and co-chair of the council, explained how supporting children in vulnerable communities is not only the right thing to do but is also an essential part of preventing the problem of incarceration.
“Most people see the criminal justice reform space as just a linear spectrum from prevention to aftercare, but the truth of the matter is … that it is a cycle,” Carr said in an interview conducted at the beginning of the summit. “The vast majority of philanthropic funding, of corporate funding, of policy work focuses on the end of that cycle: decarceration, combating recidivism, second-chance hiring. But if you don't go upstream to solve for the reason that more people of color, more folks in rural spaces, more and more women are … being incarcerated in the first place, we never solve the actual problem.”
The First and Second Chances Philanthropy Council’s gathering in Houston assembled some of the nation’s leading forces working in the areas of criminal justice reform, incarceration prevention, and second-chance employment. From large corporations to small nonprofits, the attendees represented organizations engaged in a wide range of philanthropic activities, including research, advocacy, and grantmaking. The Houston summit gave the attendees a unique opportunity to share insights, ideas, and inspiration with like-minded peers.
THE FIRST CHANCE NETWORK IN ACTION
Those attending the summit also had an opportunity to observe a Prison Fellowship Angel Tree-sponsored STEM camp. Held on a Saturday morning in the middle of the summit schedule, the event attracted a crowd of energetic school-aged children to Buffalo Soldiers Museum, where they conducted science experiments under the supervision of local college students majoring in STEM subjects.
The event was an example of an Angel Tree program activity that is being enhanced by the First Chance Network, Prison Fellowship’s initiative to work with grassroots partners in five target cities to support children with incarcerated parents. The Angel Tree STEM camp was made possible through the collaborative effort of Houston-area churches, schools, and nonprofits, all working together to provide opportunities for local Angel Tree children.
One of the institutions involved in hosting the camp was the University of Houston’s STEM Center. The center’s director, Dr. Heather Domjan, was full of excitement as she surveyed the auditorium, which buzzed with the energy of dozens of children.
“Partnering with Angel Tree provides us the opportunity to reach our hands out and support students to become STEM literate,” she said. “Inspiring students to succeed in STEM helps to break the poverty cycle as they receive equitable resources to navigate a new pathway, not just for themselves, but for their legacy and for future generations.”
“If you don't go upstream to solve for the reason that more people of color, more folks in rural spaces, more and more women are … being incarcerated in the first place, we never solve the actual problem.”
—Dr. Marvin Carr
ROOTED IN SERVICE TO PEOPLE
Council member Carson Whitelemons is director of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, where she leads the foundation’s efforts to bring systemic change to the criminal justice sector. As a young girl, she received Christmas gifts through Angel Tree while her father was incarcerated.
“It's a little thing to receive a gift at Christmas, but sometimes that can feel really big in an otherwise challenging time,” she says. “We are a philanthropy focused on systems change and on policy reform, and we appreciate how Prison Fellowship’s work in that area is directly rooted in their service and the programming that they do with people who are justice involved every day.”
Making connections between big-picture policy reform and programs impacting people on a personal level was a recurring theme during the summit. After attending the First Chance Network’s STEM Camp, the council members traveled to a nearby prison to interact with participants in the Prison Fellowship Academy®, a yearlong program that helps prisoners overcome negative thinking and behaviors and become good citizens. Later that evening, the council heard the testimony of Prison Fellowship’s mission ambassador, Jermaine Wilson, a graduate of the Academy who later went on to be elected as the mayor of Leavenworth, Kansas. Wilson spoke about how the principles he learned from the Academy helped him persevere when he was denied job opportunities due to his criminal record.
The Houston summit highlighted the need for businesses, foundations, and nonprofits to work together to support the children of the incarcerated while also working to remove obstacles to employment, housing, and education for those who have been released from prison.
“Being in the philanthropic space, you get to see a lot of the great work that's being done but can get a little bit focused on the specific issues that you're working on or the community that you are closest to,” said Whitelemons. “I think this is really going to help us to step back and look and think about how we can maximize our impact across the country.”
The First and Second Chances Philanthropy Council is expanding the vision and amplifying the efforts of various institutions that are addressing the interconnected issues of first and second chances. By building a broad coalition and fostering collaboration, this diverse group of partners is poised to significantly impact the lives of those affected by incarceration.
“I think this is really going to help us to step back and look and think about how we can maximize our impact across the country.”