This call center company relies on a workforce of incarcerated women to help companies like Microsoft, SAP, and Dell power their customer support

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  • Televerde, a sales and marketing company that works with SAP, Adobe, Microsoft, Dell, and others, provides training and employment for currently and formerly incarcerated women in Arizona and Indiana.
  • At Televerde, these women have the opportunity to save some money, get promoted, and possibly even find themselves on a career track there after their release. 
  • Critics say that while programs like Televerde can provide employment opportunities for incarcerated people, it’s also important to raise questions about private companies profiting off prison labor.
  • Business Insider spoke with four women — three formerly incarcerated; one currently so — who have worked with Televerde.
  • They share what it’s like to work at Televerde while in prison and what it’s like to transition back to society after their release.
  • Read more on the Business Insider homepage.

When Erin Ford, 28, was still incarcerated in Perryville, a women’s prison center in Goodyear, Arizona, she would see a group of women still in their prisoners’ uniform, leaving the facility gates every morning. 

These women were off to work at Televerde, a sales and marketing company that works with the Department of Corrections in Arizona and Indiana to provide call center jobs for currently incarcerated women — and provide jobs for some of them upon their release. Televerde counts tech giants like SAP, Adobe, Microsoft, and Dell as clients.

“I wanted to know how I could be a part of that,” Ford told Business Insider. “It was kind of like, a position up on a pedestal for anyone that was incarcerated…It was an opportunity to get out of the yard every day.

Since it was founded about 25 years ago, Televerde says that it has employed 3,000 incarcerated women. After their release, they have the possibility of getting hired with Televerde for a full-time role. Indeed, today, about half of Televerde’s workforce at the headquarters in Phoenix are former Perryville inmates.

Televerde says that when it hires inmates, it doesn’t ask applicants for any information about their crimes, following a “don’t ask, don’t tell” hiring practice.

Televerde now has eight contact centers, five of which are staffed entirely by incarcerated women from prisons in Arizona and Indiana. To a visitor, it might look like any other call center — except the employees are all wearing orange.

We spoke to four women — three who were former inmates at Perryville, and one current prisoner there — about what it’s like to work at Televerde.

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A day of work at Televerde

Televerde says these employees are paid an hourly wage, which starts at federal minimum wage and includes time and a half for overtime. They have immediate access to one-third of their wages for discretionary spending. Another third goes to the Department of Corrections and the state to pay for room and board, as well as fines, restitution, child support or room and board, if applicable. The remainder goes into a savings account.

Valerie Ochoa, who is currently incarcerated at Perryville, now works as an inside sales representative for Televerde. Over the last three years, she’s worked her way up the ranks — she even spoke about her experience at a TEDx event at the prison. 

Ochoa works from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. At work, each employee has her own desk, cubicle and computer at work, and during the day, she’ll call clients and assist them through the customer life-cycle. 

“Once I step into Televerde, I’m no longer an inmate. I take that hat off and I’m a professional,” Ochoa told Business Insider.

While at Perryville, Ford, who was released in 2015 and now working at Televerde, studied for her GED specifically so she could get a full-time job after her release. She saw it as a chance to make good on her past mistakes. 

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“Growing up I had a really strong sense of family but a not-so-strong sense of self,” Ford said. “I was a bit lost, and it led to me making poor choices.”

Not every Televerde employee is a former or current prisoner — the company does hire through more conventional avenues, too. Televerde CEO Morag Lucey says that the company looks to ensure there is equality at the company between current and former prisoners, and anyone hired from outside 

“There is a feeling that they’re not as good as some people on the outside because they are incarcerated,” Lucey told Business Insider. “They’re working to understand they are absolutely capable of participating within the company and society. It’s empowering them to feel like they have a voice and a purpose.”

Perspectives on prison labor

Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, says that establishments like Televerde can play an important role in the lives of formerly incarcerated people: It’s hard to find work with prior convictions on your record, and even the jobs that are available may not pay enough to support themselves or their families. 

“When a person comes home from prison, it can take quite a long while to get a job because of all the obstacles in their way,” Mauer told Business Insider. “Having a job commitment when you’re still in prison just makes that transition far more smooth when coming home.”

Beyond the financial stability, Mauer says that jobs at places like Televerde can provide stability and peer support, further reducing the risk of recidivism. 

At the same time, it’s not exactly mission accomplished, says Andrea James, founder and executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. 

While it’s good that Televerde and companies like it provide jobs to current and former prisoners, she says, it’s not a perfect solution: It’s important to advocate for their labor rights, like fair wages, how much of their salary they can keep, and to what extent these opportunities are transferred after their release. These jobs tend to pay very little, and incarcerated people often earn less than a dollar an hour, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. With a few exceptions, regular prison jobs are still unpaid in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.

“People say any job is better than no job, but it doesn’t negate the fact we need to keep demanding fairness,” James said. “There’s always this caution we have whenever we create more opportunities for private companies to use prison labor. “

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Preparing to return home

Leading up to release, women can go through six months of workshops to prepare for transitioning back to society. Those workshops cover topics like financial planning, family reintegration, and career placement. At Perryville, when women are released, they refer to it as “graduation.”

About 25 percent of inmates continue to work with Televerde after their release, while others may find work with Televerde’s clients. Not every woman who worked at Televerde while in prison is guaranteed a job, but the company considers them for open positions. 

Last year, 58 formerly incarcerated women worked at Televerde’s office in Phoenix with an average annual base salary of $52,089.11 plus bonus and benefits. Televerde says it has formerly incarcerated women at every level of the organization, including in its top ranks of executive leadership. 

These women are also less likely to return to prison, a cycle that many former inmates may be trapped in. Nationwide, the three-year recidivism rate is 68%. Televerde says its formerly incarcerated employees have a 6% recidivism rate. It also offers continued support for these employees through life skills training, a mentorship program, and other initiatives. 

Read more: Critics are warning that the criminal-justice-reform bill being hailed as a bipartisan victory doesn’t go nearly far enough

Life after graduation

Initially, Korbi Johnston, strategic account manager at Televerde and a former Perryville inmate, stayed with her parents until she could find a house. She says she was fortunate that she had housing —  others often have trouble finding a place to stay after their release. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, formerly incarcerated people are nearly 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general population.

They also face barriers in accessing public benefits, like welfare and food stamps, as well as receiving licenses for certain occupations, The Sentencing Project’s Mauer says. According to The Sentencing Project, 180,000 women in the 12 most impacted states are subject to a lifetime ban on financial assistance for their families.

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“When we transition there is a lot of fear — how things have changed, how your family has changed,” Johnston said. “The one thing that was stable was I felt comfortable with was my job.”

Like Johnston, Virginia Mireles, now a corporate people development specialist at Televerde, was also offered a position after her release in 2018. 

“I already made a commitment that no matter what it was, the feedback that I received, I was going to adopt it, and everything had to change,” Mireles told Business Insider. “I was learning technology, learning how to speak effectively, and learning how to interact with C-levels while I was sitting in my orange uniform.”

Today, Mireles participates in mentorship programs to help women who are in a similar situation to the one in which she found herself. For Mireles, the biggest challenge after graduation was establishing a relationship with her children again.

“They grew up while I was gone,” Mireles said. “They’re adults. How do you parent children who are not children? Setting boundaries and having open communication was the part of it. I always imagined how hard it would be to do what normal people do every day.”

Ochoa’s planned release date is May 1, 2020, which is less than a year from now — and she is counting the days. When she leaves prison, she looks forward to being with her family, participating in society, and dining out. She hopes to continue her education and eventually become a sales executive.

“I’m already in preparation for thinking about my long term and short term goals for release,” Ochoa said. “I know I’m capable of that, and I’m so ready to participate and give back as this company and this program have given to me…I’m confident that when I graduate, it’s a matter of choosing the right direction. I never stopped learning and I continue to grow every day.”

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