After Leaving Prison, This Man is Helping End Recidivism

Portrait of Jason Wang with light shining through the windows

Jason Wang is a believer in second chances. When Jason was fifteen, he was sentenced to twelve years in prison for aggravated robbery. But his story didn’t begin or end there. 

Growing up, Jason was the only Asian American kid in the home states where he grew up (first New Jersey, then Georgia, then Iowa, and landing in Texas); he decided to join a gang as a way of belonging. 

After being convicted of a gang-related crime, Jason went on to experience the brunt of the injustices embedded in the criminal justice system and the systematic disproportionalities people of color face.

Now, he’s working to improve the same system that couldn’t help him.

Jason Wang as a young child posing under a decorative umbrella in a vintage photo
Jason Wang as a child / Photo courtesy of Jason Wang

Jason recalls the conditions he grew up in on the Sounds Good podcast, most of which were a product of the generational poverty his family faced: “I remember growing up in this apartment where there were rats running through the hallway, gunshots downstairs. It was a really dangerous neighborhood.”

This, however, was not the end of their struggles.

The family settled down in a town where everyone, except Jason, was white. He found it difficult to connect with people and was often picked on by other kids for his race; his home life was also difficult because of the domestic abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. 

Jason recounts moments with his father where he would physically and verbally abuse him, telling him that he would “not be able to amount to anything.” 

When Jason was thirteen years old, he met a local Asian gang who called themselves ‘Snakeheads.’ After some time, they became family for Jason — they represented the safety, security, and love that he always craved. 

But it didn’t last long. When he was fifteen, Jason was arrested in the garage of his mother’s home in Iowa for aggravated robbery. He then received a twelve-year sentence.

Jason Wang's prison mugshot - holding a sign with his name and birthday on it
Jason Wang's Mugshot / Photo courtesy of Jason Wang

Reflecting on his first court appearance at fifteen, Jason Wang tells Good Good Good that he is grateful for his time in prison.

“I do know for a fact that I needed to go to prison at that point in my life,” he explains. “Because if I had not been caught in that moment, I would have done far worse.” 

Jason’s intervention, to him, was necessary — but it was this intervention that also tried to fail him during his time in prison and after his release.

The Experience of Being a Teenager Inside a Maximum Security Prison in Texas

Recalling his time in prison, Jason described it to the Sounds Good podcast as inhumane. “It's like processing cattle. If you've ever watched any of those videos, it really is just a system of just pushing you through this entire process… By this point, they see me by my prison number, and I still remember it to this day. 1104457.”

He went on to describe the brutality of the violence that he and other children experienced while incarcerated. “[Correctional officers] used pepper spray, slamming kids against walls and grounds and all sorts of just really, really heavy-handed tactics. And so it's just a very dangerous place to be. People were getting stabbed.”

According to a United States Justice Department report described by the New York Times, “In 2019, prison staff [in Texas] used force against incarcerated children almost 7,000 times — equivalent to six times per child who was confined that year. Over the years, nearly a dozen staff members have been arrested on charges of sexual abuse against juveniles, and complaints about mayhem inside the facilities — gang wars, fights, and suicide attempts — are common.”

In addition to the violence that youth in prison experienced, Jason criticized the lack of proper education available to him and other incarcerated youth. 

Jason Wang posing with his degree while wearing a silver cap and gown in prison
Jason Wang went on to get his GED while at Evins Regional Juvenile Center / Photo courtesy of Jason Wang

“Education was a complete joke. We would have classrooms where you would have 30 kids from different age ranges, with different education levels. And because you had all these different factors, what the teachers would do is they would give us crossword puzzles just to keep us busy.”

“So what happens? An eleven-year-old kid who goes into the prison system for truancy gets out of the prison system at 16, goes to a public school where he's held back four grades. He's made fun of because he is the dumbest kid in the class and also the biggest kid in the class.”

“What do you think that kid is going to end up doing? And sure enough, kids were coming back into the prison in droves. You would see one can get released, a couple of months would go by. He'd be right back where he started.”

The Experience of Returning From Prison

After Jason served his sentence, he realized just how difficult it was for an ex-felon to rebuild their life post-prison. He was consistently rejected from job and career opportunities for a mistake he made at fifteen years old. 

Due to a unique law in Texas which only required Jason to serve a minimum three year prison sentence, Jason was released early. 

Thanks in part to Jason’s own self-advocacy and the work of lawmakers, Jason was one of few folks lucky enough to receive a short sentence and experience life after prison. (His advocacy led to thousands of other youth being released from maximum-security prisons to community programs.)

A polaroid of Jason Wang and his mother in front of bookshelves, dated 8/20/05
A portrait of Jason Wang with his mother. Jason described how his mother would drive to visit him at prison, and attributes his successes to the privilege of having a mother who continued to support him / Photo courtesy of Jason Wang

The time spent in prison is not the only struggle that ex-felons will face. Once folks are released from prison, their chances of returning to prison are extremely high, also known as recidivism. 

When you consider the trauma and mental health challenges that those incarcerated experienced before entering the prison system and while incarcerated within the criminal justice system, as well as the lack of resources and education available to people in prison, it’s no surprise that recidivism rates are high.

As of 2020, approximately 2 out of 3 people released from prisons in the United States were rearrested within three years. 

After getting out of prison, Jason decided to dedicate his life to ending high recidivism rates and generational poverty, ensuring that others wouldn’t have to experience the struggles he experienced. 

Jason Wang in a cap and gown wih his mother - a polaroid with the text Fri 10/28/05 GED Edinburg
Jason Wang poses with his mother after receiving his GED / Photo courtesy of Jason Wang

Jason told Sounds Good, “The current status quo produces somebody who is positioned, who is set up to fail once they are released from prison. If we really want to fix this problem, we have to invest in rehabilitation.”

When Jason left prison, he felt lost — the effects of facing solitary confinement at fifteen and having readjusted to the world three years later were extremely difficult for him.

Although he was released from prison and free to continue his life, he had seen and experienced more than he imagined during his three year sentence. 

Not only did he have to rebuild his life, but he had to work through the traumatizing experience of isolation in prison and the broken criminal justice system.

He moved back in with his mother, who had been supportive throughout his entire time in prison, and decided to go to college, attending the University of Texas at Dallas and receiving a master’s degree in business and science.

Jason Wang with his mother posing outdoors in a cap and gown while holding a degree that says The University of Texas at Dallas
Jason Wang poses with his mother after receiving his master's degree from The University of Texas at Dallas / Photo courtesy of Jason Wang

When you have a criminal record, it’s hard to find and be offered social and career-based opportunities.

Oftentimes, returning citizens have to share the details of their criminal record, attain a vehicle they don’t have access to, or figure out how to renew an outdated ID or paperwork. 

That’s why so many people end up back in prison — because they’ve been set up to have no place to go. 

Despite having significantly changed his life, and getting his master’s degree, Jason described how he struggled to find a job. “I was getting turned down job after job after job, even for menial jobs, jobs that really didn't pay much at all. And after being rejected 40 or 50 times, I'll be honest, there was a point where I just said, ‘Look, man, I was doing much better back in the streets before I went to prison.’”

Founding FreeWorld

Jason tells Good Good Good that while he does believe in paying the price for a crime committed, he also believes in the humanity of those convicted. 

While prisons exist to punish those who have committed crimes, they seldom invest further in the rehabilitation or future success of their inmates. “

The truth of the matter is 95 percent of the people who go to prison will be released at some point,” Jason explains. They cannot readjust to their new life alone — which inspired his organization FreeWorld.

FreeWorld is a certified minority-led 501(c)3 nonprofit organization — which focuses on criminal justice reform and ending generational poverty and recidivism, while also helping “returning citizens earn high wage careers to thrive on their own terms.” 

“We called this company FreeWorld because FreeWorld is prison slang for life outside of prison,” Jason explained.

“When I was in prison, I always dreamed about getting out into the free world. And here it was that that dream had become reality. And so I named my company after that dream that I had in prison.”

“An example of this is that when I was in prison, I always dreamed about getting out into the free world. And here it was that that dream had become reality. And so I named my company after that dream that I had in prison.”

Jason Wang in a suit in a prison, raising his arms in celebration while smiling
Jason Wang with a group of inmates / Photo courtesy of FreeWorld

What Does FreeWorld Do For The Formerly Incarcerated?

The organization brings together different innovators specialized in creating economic and social opportunities through workshops, masterclasses, funding, and mentoring. 

The organization specifically offers returning citizens a career in trucking because of the industry’s high demand for drivers and the well-paying opportunities it affords.

When describing the first year of running FreeWorld, Jason said, “[It] was all about testing out this theory where we would literally just pay for people to go to trucking school to get their license and just see what happens next.”

A man stands in front of a truck holding a piece of paper
A FreeWorld graduate stands in front of a truck with his certificate / Photo courtesy of FreeWorld

Quickly, he found that, while the trucking aspect was successful, many of the individuals they were serving were still struggling.

He described how many of the issues that people were facing were the same issues he had faced when he had gotten out of prison. “And so we started to build out wrap-around services for the trucking program. If somebody is homeless, then we have a list of housing partners that we offer to get them shelter over their head.”

“If they don't have transportation, we use Uber, and we will literally send a text message out to our students and give them free rides so they can get wherever they need to go.”

On Sounds Good, Jason shared, “If you get out, you don't have any identification. And it's crazy to think that when you're in prison, the prison knows exactly who you are. But as soon as you leave those gates, you're dead to them. They have no idea who you are and the process of getting a birth certificate, a social security card or driver's license — if any of your audience have ever gone to a DMV before, you can imagine, that's a pretty frustrating process.”

Men pose with certificates in front of a yellow semitruck
FreeWorld Graduates / Photo courtesy of FreeWorld

And so FreeWorld helps with the simple, menial, annoying process of simply getting people access to formal forms of identification.

Once someone in the program has housing, transportation, and identification, FreeWorld supports them with continued education.

Jason says that 76% of the people who apply to their program are minorities and about 70% of them have never had a GED, high school diploma, or college degree. 

FreeWorld built up a trucking curriculum from the ground up, hiring as many people with criminal histories as possible to staff their organization. They then pay students $1500 to go to a local trucking school to get actual behind the wheel experience.

“And so when you look at this program, from application to getting into a career, it all takes 45 days with all your identification, a job, education, everything,” Jason describes.

Graduates of FreeWorld earn approximately $200,000 within the first three years of graduating, with a 100 percent employment rate. 

A vertical social media post with the text "Can Not thank Jason Wang enuff you believe when many didn't" "Passed" "Freeworld" With photos in front of a truck c
A social media post from a FreeWorld graduate / Photo courtesy of FreeWorld

Less than one percent of FreeWorld graduates have gone back to prison, compared to the 67.8 percent of people who are rearrested within three years of leaving prison. 

Once someone has received successful employment (and make over $50,000), they allocate a portion of their salary to another person in the program, offering “10% of  [their] monthly income towards the next student for 36 payments.”

“And not only is this model going to allow us to get to a point of self-sustainability, but I am a firm believer that each of us who have gone to prison have hurt people. That's the reason why we were incarcerated,” Jason says.

“So when we are in a position where we are successful, it is our duty and our responsibility to give back and pay it forward to pay off this debt, which in reality will never be paid off. But it is our responsibility to help our community break out of these generational cycles of poverty recidivism.”

“So when we are in a position where we are successful, it is our duty and our responsibility to give back and pay it forward to pay off this debt, which in reality will never be paid off. But it is our responsibility to help our community break out of these generational cycles of poverty recidivism.”

Men pose with certificates in front of a yellow semitruck
FreeWorld Graduates / Photo courtesy of FreeWorld

FreeWorld isn’t only offering a job and a paycheck to its participants; it’s also helping people find a place to belong and reminding them that they don’t have to return to a life of crime.

Jason uses his voice to fight against the idea that incarceration is the path to rehabilitation. “We are spending money on a solution that doesn't work,” Jason says. “And we're not giving people the opportunity to thrive after prison.”

Instead of spending taxpayer’s money on funding a failing system, Jason encourages policy makers to use these dollars to fund rehabilitation resources such as workshops, mentorship, and therapy. And in the meantime, he’s working to play a role in solving the problem himself.

Jason Wang of FreeWorld sits in an empty room pensive
Jason Wang, Founder of FreeWorld / Photo courtesy of FreeWorld

FreeWorld is an opportunity for ex-felons to experience life beyond prison. It’s a reminder that, despite their pasts, they can work towards a better future.

Jason is empowering returning citizens by helping them get well-paying jobs in a high-demand industry. FreeWorld offers a chance to receive rehabilitation and avoid recidivism altogether.

You can learn more about FreeWorld’s work by following them on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about them at joinfreeworld.com.

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