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Crowdfunding Projects Present Opportunities for Prisoners

Kickstarter and other crowdfunding websites provide an interesting option for prisoners with imagination and originality to explore career-expanding opportunities, raise money and gain access to a commodity often in short supply behind bars – hope.

Basically, crowdfunding involves developing online campaigns for specific projects, charitable causes or services, or to develop certain products. People who want to support a campaign can donate funds, from as little as $1 to as much as they want. Hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of people may join together to support and fund a campaign, and once the project achieves its target funding amount the money is paid to the campaign organizer so they can make the project a reality.

Kickstarter, founded in 2009, is a popular crowdfunding site that specializes in entrepreneurial campaigns with an artistic focus, while other sites like GoFundMe, IndieGoGo, Fundly and RocketHub are more flexible. Some sites allow campaigns for legal defense expenses, bail money and prison ministries. Almost all of these services charge fees ranging from around 4 to 9 percent of the money collected during the campaign; some are all-or-nothing, meaning the entire amount of the project must be funded or the campaign is cancelled. Donors retain no equity interest in the funded projects but usually receive recognition or incentives for their contributions.

Modest crowdfunding projects that have been started by or on behalf of prisoners have included a $5,700 campaign to produce “Amazing Grace” by women in a New York prison, $582 to finance a creative writing class at the Garner Correctional Institution in Connecticut and a project to collect art supplies for incarcerated students. Individual prisoners have used crowdfunding to raise money to prove their innocence or to make bond. The success of such campaigns often depends on the ability to tap into a large network of potential funders who might be interested in the project.

Since March 2014, the Cook County Jail has run a 10-week culinary program involving a small group of prisoners to help them learn marketable skills and obtain jobs in the food service industry upon their release. Chef Bruno Abate, an Italian native who runs the program, called “Recipe for Change,” become inspired after learning about an award-winning bakery at the Due Palazzi prison in Padua, Italy. In May 2015, Abate wanted to take the culinary program to the next level.

“When you know how to make pizza well, you can find a job anywhere,” he said. Abate joined forces with prominent businessman Ronald Gidwitz to buy a pizza oven for the program. They raised almost $5,000 though an IndieGoGo campaign and another $11,000 through Gidwitz’s personal network, and were able to buy a top-of-the-line oven. They hope to eventually bake and sell pizzas to hungry customers outside the jail.

Innocence projects and prisoners’ rights organization have used crowdfunding for a variety of causes, too. The Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent non-profit organization, launched a successful campaign through IndieGoGo that raised around $15,000 for the Prison Ecology Project to fight toxic prisons. [See: PLN, June 2016, p.1; March 2016, p.22; Dec. 2015, p.39; Aug. 2015, p.12].

Claudia Whitman with CURE’s National Death Row Assistance Network raised $2,600 through IndieGoGo to help fund a wrongful conviction investigation on behalf of Michigan prisoner Lacino Hamilton.

Many prisons and jails have institutional rules that make crowdfunding projects difficult if not impossible. Some have regulations that prevent prisoners from receiving funds from other prisoners, parolees or individuals not related to them. Others prohibit prisoners from having checking or savings accounts, and deduct expenses for the cost of incarceration from money placed in their prison trust accounts. Therefore, crowdfunding campaigns for prisoners or prison-related projects are usually organized and run by friends, family members or other contacts outside of prison.

While many prisoners have an entrepreneurial spirit, it generally goes unrewarded; creative outlets such as writing books, producing songs and creating artwork are not only discouraged but sometimes purposely impeded by corrections officials. Such limitations, often justified by rote references to “institutional security,” but in reality implemented by unimaginative and sometimes hostile guards and prison administrators, do little to assist with prisoners’ rehabilitation.

The global economy is a digital economy that is ruled by computers, smart phones and Internet-savvy businesses, which are anathema to prison and jail officials who largely operate in the analog era. Although prisoners are increasingly being allowed to use secure, monitored email systems, such as CorrLinks in federal prisons, the vast majority do not have access to the Internet – even though computer and online skills are a prerequisite for most living wage jobs in the non-prison economy.

Projects such as those funded by Kickstarter and similar sites would be a welcome alternative to many prisoners, who would be encouraged to think in a positive, creative and thoughtful manner about how to successfully pursue funding campaigns for their projects, products and services – a skill that would serve them well after they are released. Such endeavors should be encouraged, and prisoners with initiative should be given the resources and opportunities to either succeed or fail based upon their own originality, ideas and drive.

Instead of fearing change our nation’s corrections system needs to embrace it, taking advantage of all the Internet has to offer instead of viewing technology as an inherent threat. By devoting resources to online education, job training and business opportunities, including crowdfunding campaigns – all available with a few keystrokes at often minimal cost – prisoners could spend their time engaging in worthwhile and positive projects to help them prepare for their eventual release.


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