America’s criminal justice system currently houses more than 2 million people — that’s more per capita than any other nation on earth. Even worse: Many are repeat offenders who haven’t been offered the support or resources to get their lives back on track once released.
This, along with the stigma attached to a criminal record, has a devastating effect on their job prospects, with an estimated 60 percent still out of work one year after release.
A new initiative, backed in part by the singer John Legend, is hoping to reverse those dire statistics. Unlocked Futures is a joint project of the philanthropic fund New Profit, Bank of America and Legend’s own nonprofit, FreeAmerica.
Over the course of 16 months, the accelerator, which recently announced its inaugural class, will provide support, funding and mentoring to eight people chosen for their visionary prison-reform efforts. These social entrepreneurs have more in common than just a dedication to helping former inmates flourish on the outside: All of them have been either incarcerated themselves or impacted by the criminal justice system in some way.
“Too often are formerly incarcerated individuals locked out of job opportunities because of their past,” Legend said last spring, when Unlocked Futures was announced. “I have seen that entrepreneurship is a viable way for formerly incarcerated individuals to build sustainable livelihoods and contribute to their communities and neighborhoods.”

“This normalizes success ― others seeing us as actual human beings who can succeed even though we’ve gone to prison,” says Will Avila of the Unlocked Futures program.

The initiative will support entrepreneurship as a powerful pathway out of the incarceration cycle, which costs America $80 billion a year in hard dollars and untold billions more in its negative impact on vulnerable families and communities. By amplifying organizations built by those whose lives have been rocked by the judicial system, Unlocked Futures also hopes to change public perception about the humanity and potential of people who refuse to be defined by their worst mistake.
The ventures founded by the first cohort of entrepreneurs and nourished by Unlocked Futures range from an app called Flikshop that lets people send photo postcards to loved ones behind bars to the Bronx, N.Y.-based Hope House, which provides transitional housing for formerly incarcerated women.
After spending a chunk of his teens and 20s in prison, Will Avila founded Clean Decisions, a commercial kitchen cleaning company that exclusively employs formerly incarcerated men in Washington, D.C., and its nonprofit offshoot, Changing Perceptions, which provides job training and reentry support to recently released inmates. Avila credits Unlocked Futures with validating his efforts and for giving him the confidence to inspire others.
“We are always waiting for someone to come tell us that we did something wrong, and as we get more success we struggle to know what to do because we don’t feel like we deserve it or that we belong,” says Avila. “This normalizes success ― others seeing us as actual human beings who can succeed even though we’ve gone to prison.”
In the nation’s capital, where Avila grew up, 71 percent of returning citizens were unemployed in 2015.
“There are a lot of reasons that’s the case,” he says, “but we all have felt that pain, as well as the pain of homelessness, substance abuse to numb this pain and anger that leads to violence. For this reason, when we do start our own enterprises, we want to give back. Entrepreneurship is a powerful cycle because almost every returning citizen I know is crafting a business that helps others who have served time.”

Singer John Legend is one of the key backers of Unlocked Futures.

Amanda Alexander, founder of the Detroit Justice Center, which provides community lawyering services and economic opportunities to those in and around the prison system, asserts that there is a boldness to the group’s ideas, as well as a sense of urgency.
“Folks in the cohort are always talking about the brothers and sisters they left behind in prison and wanting to reach a hand back to them,” says Alexander, whose father was locked up during a portion of her childhood. “I was fortunate to have support through my dad’s incarceration, and that’s allowed us to have a lifelong relationship. I want the same for other families. My aim is to ensure that families caught up in the criminal justice system aren’t shut out of the city’s future.”
And, she adds, Unlocked Futures helps good ideas spread faster.
“Ultimately, it’s not about the eight of us and our work. It’s about movement building,” Alexander says. “Mass incarceration has touched every part of our society, so it’s going to take a broad movement to bring it down.”
As for Jason Cleveland, founder of tech platform Obodo, which helps nonprofits serving returning citizens streamline data and training systems, Unlocked Futures affirms what he’s long believed ― that there are real market opportunities within the prison-reform movement and that it is possible to both care and prosper.
“For too long, efforts to serve have been hampered by lack of access to capital and an outdated notion that to do good, a person or an organization needs to be impoverished themselves,” he says. “Entrepreneurship is not just about starting businesses; it is about seeing problems as opportunities. It is about seeing beyond the now to what is possible.”
Whenever Cleveland visits prisons around his home state of Missouri, teaching what he calls “the entrepreneurial mindset,” he encounters a glut of potential business leaders.
“Most people there do not understand that they are already entrepreneurs. They don’t see that they have been finding unique solutions to problems their entire lives,” Cleveland says. “Oftentimes, when these people are provided with a framework for making different decisions and given the tools they need to move forward, they do.”

Correction: A previous version of this article indicated that Amanda Alexander’s father had been incarcerated more than once during her childhood. NationSwell apologizes for the error.