U.S. taxpayers spend $130B annually on prison system and courts, which doesn’t even count the opportunity cost each time an individual returns to prison. And those returns are often due, not to an additional crime, but a technicality — losing a job, for example, or lack of communication between service providers after release. SaaS platform Acivilate and its Pokket app helps facilitate the vital connections between newly-released prisoners and the services they need to maintain self-sufficiency.
The cloud-based platform provides a dashboard for all the necessary players, including government agencies and nonprofits, to enter the citizen’s information and referrals to help keep track of their progress and send out an alert when they are struggling. From the client’s side, administrators have less paperwork to keep track of, fewer missed meetings, and the chance to stay connected with released individuals through the re-entry process.
The ATDC company and GT Flashpoint graduate already has Georgia counties Gwinnett and DeKalb on their client roster and most recently added the states of Utah and Maryland, in the rollout process in the next month. This week, the team is tuning in to the Amazon Web Services’ Public Sector Summit challenge, where they are finalists.
Fresh from their pitch at Nashville’s 36|86 conference, CEO Louise Wasilewski shares more about how she became passionate about the criminal justice system, how Acivilate’s Pokket can encourage self-sufficiency in recently-released prisoners, and how she solved her biggest challenge yet.
How did Acivilate come about?
They say new companies start when people answer old questions in a new way. My old question was, “how can I create second chances for people like my father who has a criminal history?” And so, that got me looking at how the U.S. justice system functions and how hard it is for people to get out of it.
After talking to literally hundreds of people — people who’ve been through the justice system, non-profits, social services, and people who work in the justice system — I realized that they were all describing the same problems with different words and from different perspectives. And a lot of it was just lack of communication, and that’s the kind of problem that I’d solve in the tech world before.
Tell me more about this communication issue. What specific problem are you tackling?
The problem that we’re solving is when a person gets out of prison or they are going through drug court, they usually need help finding housing, finding employment, and others. There are other things they have to do to stay out of trouble as well, for example, behavioral health counseling. They may have fallen behind on their child support payments. All of these different agencies can’t work together and help the person because privacy rules get in the way. So what we’re really doing is making it possible for those organizations — the workforce, the housing, the probation, the behavioral health, and the community service organizations — to work together to help these people get their lives back together.
How do all of these different organizations come together on the Acivilate platform? How does it look like from their standpoint?
From a professional standpoint, they can find it easier to connect with the people that they are serving because we’ve built-in an electronic referral process. So, when somebody’s getting out of jail, they can build a re-entry plan, and find service providers to work with. They can actually execute an electronic referral process where the individual agrees to share their information with that service provider. For the service provider, the value is that we screen out people that they can’t serve.
Non-profits hate turning away people who show up at their door that they can’t serve because they’re all in it for the heart. Right? They are all in it to make a difference. We help them by screening out people who are not eligible. We help them give the returning citizen a way to manage their paperwork, so when they show up at the service provider, the service provider doesn’t have to spend as much time on paperwork.
Once the prisoner is released from jail, their profile is already set up in the platform and ready for them to access?
That’s right. They hopefully make their initial appointment through the calendar function on the application as well. This makes it possible for the workforce guides to see how the person is doing. So now, maybe, the job and the place to live can be on the same side of town because often public transport is a challenge getting from one place to another. Sharing information with different agencies trying to help someone can help reduce the transportation challenges.
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
The biggest challenge for us was that we couldn’t give the products away. No business does things for free. We’re really thankful that the Georgia Research Alliance awarded a grant to Kennesaw State University to research our software and its use in the community. Because of this, we were able to get Gwinnett County Jail to start using the software and provide all of that research.
Gwinnett County, Georgia is currently using your platform. What’s been the feedback so far?
One of the things that we’ve learned is individuals need to see the software while they’re still on the inside, so that they can understand how it will help them when they’re released.
We are developing a relationship with one of the companies that provides the Obama phone. There’s usually a tax on your phone bill for the universal service fund — it covers cellphones now for indigent individuals and people who are low-income. As of December, those phones are smart phones.
We can make sure people definitely have a smart phone, a cheap one and not with a lot of data, but with wi-fi. Then when they come out, they are able to take responsibility for their own recovery and rehabilitation and use the phone for that purpose.
Where are you with funding?
We have been bootstrapped to date. Our first revenue was with the State of Maryland and a couple of weeks ago, we were awarded a 5-year contract with the State of Utah. We’ve set up our revenue as a service provider, with annual licenses paid up front.
As you build your startup, what are some lesson that you’ve learned as a founder?
I think the first thing I say is make sure you’re actually solving the correct problem. When you listen to people in the market they tell you so-and-so is the problem or something else is the problem — you’ve got to be really careful that you are solving for the right problem.
The second most valuable thing is make sure that technology can actually solve the problem because some things need advocacy. Some things need regulatory changes. Some problems can’t be fixed by technology. We abandoned several ideas before we came up with this information sharing platform because we found that technology couldn’t solve those particular problems. So, technology isn’t going to change the mind of an employer who won’t hire somebody with a criminal record. That’s an apathy and an exposure issue.
All photos courtesy of Acivilate