Sounds Good is the weekly podcast that hosts hopeful conversations with optimists and world-changers about the headlines we can be hopeful about — and how you can get involved and make a difference.

Podcast Interview: How an Ex-Felon Is Helping Others with Their Second Chance at Life

About This Episode

After getting out of prison, Jason Wang committed to helping ex-felons get jobs, end generational poverty, and re-enter society.

Jason Wang, Founder of FreeWorld

The United States’ incarceration system has made it nearly impossible for ex-felons to have a second chance after paying their debt to society.

From the minute they’re incarcerated to the minute they’re released, the U.S. justice system imposes the strictest and harshest of penalties — very few of which are centered around rehabilitation or equipping people to live new lives outside of prison.

There is little support for felons once they return to life after imprisonment, and readjusting to society without support is extremely challenging.

Ex-felons are held to impossible standards during probation and expected to comply with an average of 18-20 requirements every single day — and 68 percent of felons end up being rearrested within three years of being released.

27% of formally incarcerated people are unemployed, and poverty is the strongest predictor for reoffending. Getting a job is even more difficult for people who have been through the criminal justice system.

Mugshot for Jason Wang from 1989, Shared on the FreeWorld's website's "Team" Page

But there are people working to improve living conditions for ex-felons once they re-enter society.

FreeWorld is an organization working to end generational poverty and the chance of offenders reoffending — and is run by CEO Jason Wang, who is himself an ex-felon who was convicted as a minor.

After leaving prison, he found it hard to readjust to civilian life — and now his non-profit works to get ex-felons into well-paying jobs (and helps provide training, housing, mentorship, and other necessities) to live life on their own terms — and to continue to give back to others.

In this episode, Jason shares his personal story of incarceration — and his mission to found FreeWorld.

You can also read Jason Wang's full story of going to prison and founding FreeWorld in our feature article.


Guest: Jason Wang, CEO of FreeWorld

Follow Jason on Twitter (@jasonwaang) and visit the Free World website (joinfreeworld.com) to support their work.

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Transcript

Branden Harvey

The criminal justice system isn't just harsh when someone is incarcerated. It also makes it nearly impossible for them when they're out. Though people may serve their time. Readjusting to society and leading a normal life after incarceration is extremely difficult. According to the organization FreeWorld, 68% of felons are rearrested within three years of their release, and people on probation must comply with an average of 18 to 20 requirements every day or face arrest. Getting a job is even more difficult for people who have been through the criminal justice system.


27% of formally incarcerated people are unemployed, and poverty is the strongest predictor for reoffending. Despite all of this, one individual overcame the odds from convict to CEO, and now he's set out to help people who have been formerly incarcerated and generational poverty significantly reduce the likelihood of reoffending. This is Sounds Good. I'm Branden Harvey. Today's guest is Jason Wang. Jason's story is both heartbreaking and hopeful. At the age of five, Jason was subjected to abuse by his father and in the search for a new family, he joined the Texas-based gang Snakeheads.


At 15, he was arrested for aggravated robbery and was then sentenced to twelve years in a maximum security prison in Texas. During his time inside the system, Jason experienced a trauma that 1.8 million incarcerated people are still facing today. When he was released from prison, Jason found it incredibly challenging to readjust to society from driving a car to being overwhelmed by crowds' loud noises which ultimately led to him giving other people with similar backgrounds a second chance. What Jason chose to do with his life after his sentence is extraordinary.


Having known firsthand just how terribly society treats ex felons, he set up to help people with their second chances. Jason is now the CEO of FreeWorld, an organization that works to get ex-felons the support and resources they deserve. And now he and his team are working hard to ensure that the revolving door of the prison industrial complex is abolished for good. In today's episode, Jason is here to talk about how he completely transformed his life and is now using his life as a vehicle for change.


For others, we talk about how nearly impossible it is to rebuild a life after being Branden and ex felon what it's like to adjust to life outside of the prison system and how his mother's belief in education made him the person he is today. It's a quick note. Before we get started, this episode includes mentions of suicide and violence. If you're experiencing suicidal ideation, thoughts of self-harm, or if this is just uniquely challenging for you, please text Hello to 741741 to reach a trained crisis counselor for free  24/7 confidential help. One more time, that's Hello to 741741. All right, let's jump into the episode.


Branden Harvey

I found out about you probably a few weeks ago now and immediately when I heard your story, I was like Jason has to be on the podcast because I think you represent so much of what we care about at Good Good Good which is that people are using their unique life circumstances, their unique skill sets, their passions to create some good in the world. You do it so well. And then you ultimately usher other people into the process of getting to do good in the world on their end as well.


And so I want to get to how you do that. But I feel like the best way to lead into that is actually to just start much earlier in your story, because at least from my perspective, so much of the impact that you make is rooted in your early life. And so if you don't mind, I look to to kind of start in your childhood.


Jason Wang

Absolutely. And I see that you're starting off the podcast with some haymakers. I really appreciate the question, Branden. So yeah. When I was growing up, both my parents were immigrants. They came over to America, really with the dream of beginning a new life. And so they came to America, and we were just extraordinarily poor growing up. I remember growing up in this apartment where there were rats running through the hallway, gunshots downstairs. It was a really dangerous neighborhood.


Branden Harvey

What city were you in?


Jason Wang

I was in New Jersey at the time. So Elizabeth, New Jersey.


Branden Harvey

Okay. Cool.


Jason Wang

My father was a born and bred entrepreneur, and so he wanted to start his own trucking business. And one of the things that he did because he didn't have access to capital was he went over to one of the local gangs, and he asked for money to start this tracking business. Unfortunately, the business ended up folding, and my father wasn't able to pay that back. And so the gang came up to them with pictures of the entire family and said, "If you don't pay back this money, we're going to slaughter your entire family."


Branden Harvey

Wow.


Jason Wang

So my father did the only thing that you knew to do which was to flee. And so we moved from New Jersey down to Georgia and finally ended up in Iowa.


Branden Harvey

And what age were you when you got to Iowa?


Jason Wang

I was about five years old at the time. We were living in Carol, Iowa, which, if I recollect correctly, was a population of about 5000 people, and there wasn't a whole lot of diversity there, to say the least.


Branden Harvey

I can imagine.


Jason Wang

Yeah. So we were the only Asian family there. And part of the troubles that I had growing up was that I didn't really have people to turn t.  I didn't have many friends because I looked different. And most of the people around me were white. And so I just got picked on relentlessly as a kid.


And then when I went home, the stresses that my dad was going under, he happened to have a really bad temper. And so I became his personal punching bag. And so every single day I would go to school, I would come back. My father, at this point had saved up enough money to start up his own Chinese restaurant. And so I would work in the restaurant. And so as a five year old, my responsibility was being like a sous chef. It's a kitchen, to cleaning up the restaurant, to be in cashier, just serving tables.


But anytime that I screwed up, my father would really come down hard on me. And he used to always tell me that I would never amount to anything, that I was good for nothing. And when he got really mad, he would strip me down naked, throw me onto a floor and start stomping on me. I also remember that there were a couple of occasions where he got really, really upset, and he took a butcher knife in the kitchen and was chasing me around, trying to stab me.


Or there were many times where because I felt alone and I didn't feel like I had a safe home to go to, I would run away. And so I remember there was this one time I was running down this alleyway, this dirt alleyway, and I turn around and I see his Toyota Four Runner just making a beeline straight for me, trying to run me over. And so that was the vast majority of my experience growing up just feeling alone and not having anybody turn to.


Branden Harvey

Wow. And I know that if we fast forward a little bit, this, ultimately it sounds like leads to you joining a gang. And what I'm almost reading between the lines with is that you as the only Asian American kid in your town and you as somebody who was being straight up abused by your dad didn't have necessarily a community or a family you could turn to. And so you found community in a different way. Maybe you could tell me about the process of joining that gang.


Jason Wang

By the age of ten, I had already attempted suicide three times.


Branden Harvey

Wow. I'm so sorry.


Jason Wang

Yeah. I mean, looking back, this is a large reason why I ended up doing many of the things that I did later on life. But I remember one time I hung myself over the top of my dad's restaurant, thinking about killing myself. And in my eight year old mind, that was the only weapon that I had to get back at them for all the abuse I  sustained throughout all these years. So at the age of eleven, my parents get divorced and my dad goes up to my mom and says, hey, I didn't tell you this before, but I've got a wife and three kids, and they're going to come and live with us tomorrow.


So my mom then drives out into the middle of the woods and she's singing about killing herself. And the only reason why she doesn't is because she doesn't want me to grow up without her mother. So she comes home and she ends up sticking it through for a couple of months. And then she just finally can't take it. And she divorced my father and moves me to Texas with her and my grandma. Now, by this point, I'm already angry at the world. And I'm angry at my mother because all these times I was being abused, she never stuck up for me.


And so I thought that she just simply didn't care about me. So I found a family and a local gang that I ended up meeting when I was 13 years old. And that gang really represented the love, the safety, security and the family that I didn't have in my own life, in my home life. And the gang leader really felt like a father figure. He taught me everything that he knew. He taught me how to be a man. He taught me how to fight. And so I really clung to that as my role model growing up.


And unfortunately, that led me to being incarcerated at the age of 15 on a twelve year sentence for aggravated robbery.

Branden Harvey

Before we get into the details of that, I just want to say I think that it's not necessarily the way that I normally think about gangs. And I think many people think about gangs as being, you know, I think that we all know that there's like a community structure. But to think about that family structure and to have a father figure and the kind of emotional, relational side of things that's not something I often think about. And so it's interesting to hear that it played that role for you.


And it also not that it necessarily excuses things. But I think that it helps me and probably others understand, you know, why people stay in gangs, why people join gangs. They're providing something that you weren't getting anywhere else. And you perhaps couldn't have gotten anywhere else.


Jason Wang

Yeah. I mean, when you think about gangs, it's a very dangerous lifestyle. And so what type of place does a person have to be in life where they choose that over everything else? And that's where I was in my life. And, you know, over the past 17 years, I've been working with people with criminal histories and really dive into a lot of their stories growing up. And many of these people have grown up in in war zones where their neighborhoods are filled with gangs, in violence and poverty.


And so it's crazy that a gang is where we end up turning to for love and a family unit. But when you start off in life with absolutely nothing, that's your only option on the table.


Branden Harvey

As you joined this family, did you kind of know that you were going to go down this path of criminal activity and essentially harming other people in that process?


Jason Wang

It's kind of crazy. I was a 13 year old kid at that time, and, yes, I knew the difference between right and wrong. But I felt that what I was doing with the gang was helping me and my family at home survive because my mom at the time was working 14 hours, night shifts, moving boxes because she had no education and she was barely making it. And every single month she'd be worried about paying the bills. And I felt that even at such a young age that I want to help my mom. Now in no way does it excuse the things that I did while I was in the gang.


But what do you do when you grow up in backgrounds of poverty? And there are no legal options to actually put food on the table? And people who are typically in backgrounds of poverty tend to commit crimes because their basic needs are not being met. And so that's been the biggest discovery of mine over the past 17 years.


Branden Harvey

Tell me about the moment where you were convicted of a crime and incarcerated, because I would imagine you've got this momentum. You've got this group of people, you're taking actions, and then all of a sudden, everything stops. Everything's got to change when you get locked up, convicted whatever. Tell me about that moment.


Jason Wang

I'll never forget this. I was 15 years old at the time, and I committed a robbery, and I was getting home from a party, and our entire gang found out that the gang leader had been arrested. And we have this code in our gang that if you get caught, you take the rap, you don't snitch on anybody. And we were so close as a family unit that I really did trust that the gang leader would take the rap and not do anything or tell the police any information about us.


So at 15, I'm driving home from a party, and suddenly I get a phone call from the gang leader, and he goes, "Jason, where are you?" And I said, "Hey, I'm heading home. I heard you got locked up. What's going on? Like, don't worry about anything,  we'll bust you out all this stuff." And he goes, "Don't worry about that. Just tell me when you're going to be home." And so I told them. And so I drive home, and I pull up into my garage. And immediately, two squad cars pull up behind me in the driveway with their guns strung, and they arrest me on the spot.


And at this point, I'm making so much commotion in the garage that my mom comes out, and she goes into the garage and she sees I'm being arrested. And she asked the cop, what are you doing? And the cop explains to her the situation, and immediately she knew before this I was getting into trouble. I don't think that she knew the extent of trouble that I was getting into because I tried my best to hide what I was doing from her. But she immediately leaps to my defense, and she goes, you must have the wrong kid because my son wouldn't hurt anybody.


And then I get pushed into the squad car, and they take me over to the juvenile detention center. And in this room, I'm being interrogated by two police officers. It's about 02:00 in the morning, and I'm hearing noises from another interrogation room where it sounds like somebody is being hit and somebody's crying out in pain. And so I'm sitting there scared to death about what's going to happen next. I have no idea. I've never been involved with the police before. I never been arrested before. And so this was a brand new experience for me.


And so they question me and they get me to confess to the crime that I committed. I did not have an attorney present. And from there, I went into my holding cell, and it was there that I waited for about two and a half, three months before I finally went up in front of the judge to await my judgment.


Branden Harvey

So tell me about the prosecution. Do you sit in a courtroom? Do you defend yourself? Do you plead guilty, not guilty? What happens in that moment?


Jason Wang

I go into my holding cell and I'm waiting a hearing, and my mom spends her entire life savings to hire an attorney to fight on my behalf. And so she spends $10,000, it's everything that she has. And we hire this attorney, and he comes and visits me, I would say two times, and he goes over a couple of questions and he leaves, and he doesn't maintain contact with my mother. And we're also worried. And we just didn't know what was going to happen next. So because he wasn't being very responsive, we ended up just firing him and getting a court appointed attorney.


And when we get to that court date, it really was a blur for me. I don't remember everything that was said, but I do remember this part. We have reached the end of the trial, and I was standing in front of the judge and I'm in an orange jumpsuit. I've got a waist chain that is handcuffing my wrist to my hip, and I've got leg chains. And the judge looks down on me and he goes, because of the severity of your crime, I'm sentencing you to twelve years. And at that point, all emotion just leaves my body. Like I just become numb.


And it's kind of like what you've seen the movies, where the background noise is blurred. You kind of hear certain things. Like I heard my mom crying. I heard my grandma just wailing out, but it wasn't immediately clear to me. And from there they take me from the courtroom back to my holding cell. And I'm just sitting there. And the prospect of spending twelve years in prison at that point in my life felt like the rest of my life would be spent in prison because I'm a 15 year old kid. What do I know about twelve years?


Branden Harvey

That's your whole memories, like the earliest you could remember probably is twelve years previous.


Jason Wang

Exactly. And so I remember going to bed that night and just crying my eyes out because I had no hope for a future. So from there, they send me over to an assessment unit. And so this is basically a unit. It's in the middle of Texas and this is where they prep everybody to go to their final long-term prison facility. And so they chain us up. They put us into this van, which also has a cage around it. And we make this, I think, six hour trip over to this facility.


And when we get to the facility, the first thing I see are the candy cane fences. There's two of them. So a candy cane fence is basically a fence that goes up, and then it curves over and it's got chicken wire on that curvature. So if you were trying to climb that fence, you would essentially have to climb it upside down. And the chicken wire prevents your fingers from slipping through. So it's very difficult to climb that fence. And then on top of that, they had barbed wire surrounding the top of the fence.


And then there's two of them. And you have white vans that are circling the facility at all times. So that's the first thing that you see. And then they put you into the processing area. And here's where they take your mugshot. They fingerprint you, they get all the information. And then they process you through the showers. And so at this point, I go into the shower room. I'm ordered to strip off all my clothes. And they put de-licing shampoo on top of a washrag. So it's this green goo that helps kill any lice, because some people go into the prison system and perhaps they were homeless.


So they've got lice and bugs and all this other stuff on them. So I'm in this room with strangers. I'm completely naked, and they give me this green go, and they tell us to go into the showers. And there's a correctional officer at one end of the shower, and he goes, all right, time to shower. And he flips the switch. Now, I'm prepared this time, I don't know what to expect next. But I get hit with this freezing cold water. And so I'm washing my body as quickly as possible.


But before I get done, he turns off the shower. And I still got soap in my eyes. So I asked, "Officer, hey, can you please turn on the water a little bit more? Just so I can get the soap out of my eyes." And he says, "No, you've got three minutes."


Branden Harvey

The whole process sounds so dehumanizing.


Jason Wang

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.


Branden Harvey

And they're not seeing you as people. They're seeing you as part of the process.


Jason Wang

By this point, they see me by my prison number, and I still remember it through the stay. 1104457.


Branden Harvey

I don't know if this is like an appropriate question to ask. I don't know what the processes are on this, but like, obviously, you are not living a good life, and you were harming people out in your community. And so that needed to be stopped. But then also you end up inside of this unjust system as a teenager. Do you think that it was right that you ended up incarcerated for twelve years, and then also, how do you think about just how unjust the system was that you were a part of that? Even if maybe you did need to spend time away from society, maybe it shouldn't have been. Certainly it should not have been how it was.


Jason Wang

I'm a firm believer that if people commit crimes, they should be held accountable for their actions. And so I have no issue with being arrested and for being sent to prison in terms of how much time I should have gotten. I'll leave that to other people to decide, because it's very difficult to really figure out like what punishment I should receive, right? Like I had hurt people. And so I deserve to go to prison, and the things that I have done will forever stay seared in the minds of my victims.


And so there is an argument here where I should spend life in prison. So I can't really comment on what the punishment should be. But I do know for a fact that I needed to go to prison at that point in my life, because if I had not been caught in that moment, I would have done far worse. I could have killed somebody or somebody could have killed me. And so prison saved my life for me.


Branden Harvey

I've been processing through this idea of, like, what does it look like to recreate a better criminal justice system? So what I'm hearing from you is that prison saved your life because it was the thing that intervened. And maybe we can save this for a whole other conversation. But do you think that there's probably other interventions that could have been made that weren't prison that also could have saved your life, but they just didn't exist yet.


Jason Wang

Oh, absolutely. I went to a maximum security juvenile prison that has about 6000 kids between the ages of ten years old and 20 years old all across the United States. And so you would have kids who are literally eleven years old going to a maximum security prison for things like truancy and graffiti. And they are blent with other youth who have committed murder and are spending 30 or 40 years of their life inside of prison. And keep in mind that this prison, the way it was laid out, is not like what you see in the movies where you have individual holding cells.


The architecture of this prison was the worst architecture that you could possibly have for prison. Because if you can imagine, the layout of the prison was essentially warehouses that were sectioned off into four different squares. And so one square would be parted ABCD. And in the very middle of the entire warehouse is a control room that has a one side glass so they can see out. But nobody can see into the control room. And the reason why this architecture is so dangerous is because if a riot happens, or if a fight happens, there's no way to very quickly segregate everybody in this pod away from each other and control the situation.


And so one fight could still into other fights, which then turns into a full out riot. And the only way that correctional officers have to fight that is to just come in with guns blazing. So 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. There was even a kid who during a riot, a correctional officer, there was a 14 year old kid. His name is Calvin Barefield.


You can actually look them up online. And he was 14 years old at the time. And during this riot, a correctional officer lifted this kid above his head, slammed him so hard into the ground that he went permanently blind in one eye. And then he left that inmate in the sun, in the south Texas sun on top of an Ant Hill for hours. And by the time this kid ended up going to the Infirmary for medical treatment, he had severe sunburn. He had ant bites all over his body, and he was blind in one eye.


And that type of stuff wasn't just an isolated incident. In 2007, the media found out that the Texas Youth Commission and that's the agency that held all of these thousands of kids across the state of Texas. They found out that correctional officers were taking 13 and 14 year old boys and girls, putting them into isolation cells and sexually assaulting them. You had wardens who had a house right outside the prison grounds that were taking 14 year old boys over to their house, sexually assaulting them and then throwing them back into prison.


And because of the corruption that was rampant throughout the entire system, nobody knew about it. Any grievances that were filed were immediately thrown away. Anybody who spoke a word was immediately attacked with the prison officials would hide the information and punish the officers that would try to report these things. It was a huge story. And in 2017, I had the really unique opportunity to actually go to a state hearing and testify in front of state senators about prison reforms that we needed inside the criminal justice system in order to give us a chance after we were released.


If you can imagine an eleven year old kid going to the Texas prison system, and on average, kids would spend about four and a half years in prison, and education was a complete joke. We would have classrooms where you would have 30 kids, different age ranges, 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.


Branden Harvey

Man, this is all so heavy. And what I'm hearing is you said that prison saved your life, and clearly you're on this podcast because your life was changed and you took a u-turn on life. But what I'm hearing is that you did that in spite of the prison system, not because of the prison system. And I think that understanding how broken and corrupt this system is in our country just adds to the power of those who are able to leave prison and to not be part of that recidivism, to not be a part of this continued criminal justice system and are able to ultimately leave.


And so it's really, really admirable that people are able to make it through this because it's so unjust. If you don't mind, I would love to hear what that looks like for you. How were you able to allow prison to be a transformative experience despite the corruption and the problems and the injustice?


Jason Wang

So prison saved my life because it took me out of the situation I was in and kept me away from society where I belonged at that moment in time. And don't get me wrong. While there were bad actors in the prison system, there are also good people. There are good correctional officers, good teachers that did care about us and want to see us succeed. So I'm not painting the picture that the entire system was just terrible. There are many aspects of it that are terrible, but there are good people in that system.


What turned the corner for me was my mom. You know, I hated my mom all the way up to the point that I got arrested, and I believe that she didn't love me. But it was because I was incarcerated because I went to prison that I started to see how much she actually did love me. And it was only in hindsight that I realized that the reason why that she didn't speak up for me when I was being beat by my father was because she was scared for my father as well.


My mom used to always say that even though you're physically in prison, mentally and emotionally, I'm in prison with you. Every weekend she would drive 14 hours after coming off a twelve hour night shift. She would drive 14 hours just to come see me in prison for 2 hours.


Branden Harvey

Wow.


Jason Wang

She traded in her car to get a minivan. She put a bed in the back of the minivan and would sleep in Walmart parking lots whenever the drive was just way too long and she couldn't handle it anymore. When I was in prison, I used to get these huge packets of mail, and at first I thought it was from my old home, boys or girls I used to date. My mom was sending me math homework, and when she would come to visitation, she would be testing me on that math homework.


And what she used to say is that I cannot physically keep you safe. But what I can do is keep you mentally engaged in material. And so she would send me math homework. She would send me business books. She would ask my friends back in high school for copies of their biology book. She would go to a library, photo copy the entire book and mail it to me because she believed that education was the key to me actually breaking out of the system, and that by engaging me mentally through books, perhaps I wouldn't be engaged in the negative behavior that was happening around me.


And she was right. She believed in me at a point that I didn't even believe in myself. And I'm the person I am today because of her.


Branden Harvey

Man, that's so beautiful and powerful and such a testament to her dedication and love. Again, in spite of the challenges that she had faced and was facing. And so you have this supporting figure in your life. You're continuing your education while you're in prison. Tell me about the process of finally getting out. Did you serve all twelve years that you were convicted of?


Jason Wang

So in Texas, they had a really unique law, and that law was that you could be sentenced for a long sentence. Let's say, like 20 years, for example, for an aggravated assault case. But because you're under the age of 16 and a half, the thought was that these are kids. And so we should be giving them an opportunity to build a life post-prison because the alternative is that at 16 years old, if they're not given an opportunity to rebuild their lives, they've got the next 70 years to do a whole lot of damage at the cost of a lot of taxpayer money.


And so I was very lucky where I only had to serve a minimum of three years. I couldn't get out before that. And actually, when I went up to the Senate to testify  on behalf of criminal justice reform, Senator Whitmire actually asked the executive director of the prison system who was sitting behind me at the time whether or not I could be released early. So that was kind of unique. But what I did not know while I was incarcerated was that because of that testimony, I suddenly became the face of juvenile justice throughout the state of Texas.


Branden Harvey

Oh, really?


Jason Wang

Wow. Yeah. And many legislators were actually working behind the scenes to help me get out on the day that I could legally be released. So that was three years. And while I was incarcerated, I had incredible mentors. So the governor of Texas at that time had appointed Will Harold to be the independent ombudsman to investigate all of these different, you know, allegations of crime and corruption that was happening inside the prison system. And so as an inmate, I got to work with him on criminal justice reform and changing policies.


Like an example is a behavior management program where, let's say, for example, you assault somebody in the prison. What they would do is they would take this kid and put them into an isolation cell for months at a time where you are locked down 23 hours a day. And for the 1 hour that you do get to see sunlight, you're in a cage outside in the sun.


Branden Harvey

It's a literal torture like definition level torture. That's terrible.


Jason Wang

I mean, so many people are talking about the mental effects of the pandemic and how shutdowns cause all these mental health issues. Imagine being 14 years old being put into this isolation cell for months at a time with no human contact with nobody speak to. What does that do to a kid that is so young? It screws them up for life.


Branden Harvey

Yeah. I mean, if your goal is to punish somebody, that's one of the worst punishment you could do. But if the goal is to rehabilitate, if the goal is to ensure somebody never does something bad again, that is the opposite of the solution to that.


Jason Wang

One thing that I really want your audience to know about is that there are a lot of different ways that people look at crime and punishment. And there are some people that say that if you commit a crime, you do the time and that you should be held away from society. And I'm not necessarily against that. I do believe that people should be held accountable. But the truth of the matter is that 95% of people who go to prison will be released at some point. They are coming back.


So what type of neighbor do you want? Do you want somebody who has been rehabilitated and have opportunities to actually build a life for themselves? Or do you want somebody who has suffered through all this trauma and abuse inside of the system? Coming out into society with a criminal record, who can't get housing, who can't get education, who can't get a job and has all this free time on their hands. And by the way, they're pretty frustrated because they're hungry. They can't get a job to feed themselves or their family.


What type of citizen do you want? My argument is that the current status quo produces somebody who is positioned, who is set up to fail once they are released from prison and that if we really want to fix this problem, we have to invest in rehabilitation. We spend 182 billion dollars a year on a system that is failing us. Three out of four people who get released from prison end up back in prison within five years. This is not making our community safer, and we're wasting a ton of taxpayer dollars on us.


One other point is that if you look at the scope of the problem in the United States, one in three Americans have a criminal record, about 70 million people. To put that into perspective, about the same number of people who have college degrees. So we are holding ourselves back all of this untapped potential. We are spending money on a solution that doesn't work, and we're not giving people the opportunity to thrive after prison. And the majority of these people are people of color.


Branden Harvey

We are going to take a quick break. And when we're back, Jason is sharing how he became the face of juvenile justice throughout the state of Texas, the way that people view crime and punishment and figuring out his life after being released from prison. You don't want to miss this will be back.


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Jason Wang

I think that it is incredibly painful to see how many people of color that have spent decades behind bars for selling weed. And to look at today's society where senators and politicians and people that have wealth are now becoming even wealthier. Being the boards of these companies that now sell weed legally throughout the United States and how many people are still languishing behind bars on a crime that has now been decriminalized.


Branden Harvey

Not to mention some of them are simultaneously profiting off of, you know, cannabis companies while profiting off of the private prison industry, which is a for profit business which is unjust. And again, we should do a whole other episode about some of these deep, systemic things. But I want to get to the really cool systemic change that you have created. But first, what is it like the day that you walked out of prison. I can imagine it is a jarring experience, and I can imagine that the world had changed a lot.


Jason Wang

I had spent a relatively small amount of time in prison, about three and a half years. And you compare that to other kids who have spent 9 or 10 years of their life behind bars, literally going into prison at the age of ten and being released or sent over to the adult prison system when they were 21 years old. So I had spent a relatively small amount of time. That being said, when I was released out into society, I was frightened and overwhelmed by how the world has changed. Most people take for granted that when you're behind bars, you don't answer a phone call, you don't flip a light switch, you don't drive a car, you don't see certain colors. And when you get out in society, all of a sudden, you're hit by all these noises and sounds. Everything feels like it's moving so fast. And the things that you learn in prison to keep you alive, to help you be successful are the same things that will set you up for failure when you're released. So an example of this is proximity of people in prison.


You always know to keep your back against the wall and that you always are super aware of your surroundings. And you don't want to be in close proximity with other people because you don't know what might go on. Well out in society, if you're always staying away from other people, people kind of look at you weird. Another example is, you know, the prison system have thousands of kids. And so whenever you're being processed to eat breakfast, lunch or dinner, you've got five minutes to eat. And so you hunch over your dinner plate and you're just scarfing down food. Well, when you're in society, if you go over to a dinner party or if you go over to a friend's house and you eat your food in under a minute, people will look at you weird. And I remember the first time that I drove a car on the highway. I was going 40 mph because I just I couldn't comprehend the speed of other cars driving around me. And there's this other part where I was driving down this dirt road, and I had the music blasting in the windows down and out of nowhere, I just started crying uncontrollably.


And it wasn't until later that I started to realize that the reason why I was crying was because this felt like freedom. For the first time in years, I was free. I could listen to music. I could feel the wind going through my head. When I was in prison, I would ask my mom to send me lyrics of songs so that I could be my own personal radio inside my head. And here I was just freely listening to radio stations. It's hard to describe those first couple of days out.


But in summary, it's not easy.


Branden Harvey

What did it look like? Starting to figure out what the rest of your life was going to look like? You had the whole rest of your adult life ahead of you. And I would imagine that the possibilities felt infinite. There's any number of directions you could go because you're so young, but also restricted because our society doesn't treat people who are formerly incarcerated very well. And like you said, you had missed out on all kinds of experiences that would allow you to behave, quote, unquote normally. How are you processing that? And how did you navigate what your next steps were?


Jason Wang

So I was lucky I had a home to go to. I had a loving mother who had maintained contact with me during my entire prison sentence, and because of my working criminal justice reform as an inmate, they gave me a full ride scholarship, and so I could go to any college or university in Texas, and it was all paid for. And so I ended up getting a double masters, an MBA as well as a Master of Science degree in International Business. But despite having those credentials on my record, people saw the other piece of my record, which was my criminal background.


And despite all the changes that I had made in my life and this hopeful outlook, 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."


Branden Harvey

Yeah.


Jason Wang

Like, I mean, why continue getting rejected constantly? Like that frustration, it was just so painful. I'm a 19 year old kid now coming out of prison, going to school and trying to lead a normal life.


And it seems that no matter what I do, people saw me not as a person that I was today, but they saw me for the worst thing that I had ever done. And that just felt really, really depressing. And it really made me think that I had no feature, despite some of the accomplishments I initially had after I got out.


Branden Harvey

And I bet it felt really challenging to not have other people who knew what that experience was like. You may have felt alone again in your emotions because that's not an experience that many people have. It's an experience that very many people have, but probably not in your life.


Jason Wang

If you're the survivor of I don't know, let's like, domestic abuse, you would think that you would go to other domestic abuse survivors and ask them for advice on how they dealt with it and really learn from people who have gone through those same challenges because they understand your situation best because they've been through it. Well, in the United States, we have a law where if you have a criminal record and somebody else has criminal record, you're not allowed to associate with them. You're not allowed to talk to them.


As a matter of fact, if you do talk to them, you can be sent back to prison. And so what you would normally leverage to be successful in life, that all is taken away. And the only person you can talk to is your parole officer who, by the way, has a case load of 100 different people, and they're not incentivized to help you successfully transition out of prison into society. All they are are people who are incentivized to just process you through the system. And if you end up being a hard case or if you give them lip, all you have to do is sign a piece of paperwork and you're back in, you're back behind bars.


So they have this incredible power dynamic, which then leads to unfortunate outcomes because they hold the keys to your entire life and at a drop of a hat, they can make a decision that will change your entire future. We have such a hard time getting a job once we get released. But it is interesting to see the fines and fees that are levied upon people that get out of prison who have no ability to pay any of them. So when you're on parole, you have to pay to be on parole. And if you get behind on your payments, guess what. You can also go back to prison.


Branden Harvey

That is unreal. That is wild.


Jason Wang

I'm trying to communicate the objective facts because I don't want people to think that I have a bias against the system. But this is the reality.


Branden Harvey

I don't let people know that I have a bias against the system, and then you could just communicate the fact. But I'll tell you that I hate this system, but you go ahead.


Jason Wang

Yeah. I mean, these are the facts and, you know, are we being set up for failure? I don't know. It sure does feel like it.


Branden Harvey

But I think that this is a perfect segue to what you have created because you at the very least experienced a great deal of difficulty in the prison system and especially coming out of the prison system and trying to rebuild your life. And there's so many challenges that you were facing that you were alone in facing. And this is where things become very much a good, good, good story, like, very much up our alley, because what I see is that you identified a problem. You said people are falling through the gaps here.


People who should have a fighting chance are not being given a fighting chance. I'm identifying this problem. And then what's wild is, instead of just recognizing that there's a problem, acknowledging it and being like, well, at least I made it through just passing it by and knowing that that's a problem, but not doing anything somehow decided I think that I'm the person who should do this, who should create a solution to this problem. Tell me about that thought process. Maybe if there was a moment where you knew that you couldn't just live your life and put this behind you. But you wanted to help other people who are going through the same thing as you.


Jason Wang

Yeah, one of the biggest barriers for people getting out of prison is simply getting a job. And a job is the most sustainable way to build a life, a positive life for yourself and your family. Imagine a time in your life if this has happened or not. Or maybe you were fired or laid off from a job. And the pain and anxiety that you felt as your job searching for the next position. A lot of people last year were laid off due to COVID, and there was a lot of pain around the nation because people were uncertain about their future.


So now imagine that you grow up in poverty, that you don't have a fallback plan and you don't have access to credit. So you're poor. You can't get a job based on your criminal history. So what do you do? And when you look at the statistics, it's pretty jarring. 50% of people that get released from prison are unemployed by the end of the first year. If they are employed, if they are employed, they make around $10,000. And to people who are rearrested after they get out of prison, guess what?


They're unemployed. A living wage job is the key to significantly reducing recidivism. But we have a systemic issue here. And that criminal record. Most employers will -- if they have a choice between two candidates that have equal experiences. It's like everything the same across the board. But one person has a criminal record, and the other person doesn't. They're picking the person without the criminal record. So what we thought of and this was through working with Matt Mochary, who's on our Board of Directors, he's a very successful entrepreneur, investor, CEO, coach.


We came up with this idea where to bypass that issue of having a criminal record, we need to look at industries that we're facing massive labor shortages because based on market dynamics, if you don't have enough people to fill that position, then you're forced to hire whoever has that skill set. And what we start to realize is that in the trucking industry, they need more than a million drivers over the next ten years just to keep up with current economic command. And when you think about COVID and the pandemic, what happened there, most retailers went ecommerce.


When you look at the most successful company in the world, it's Amazon. And guess what they do. They ship products to your door. America runs on trucking, and if it doesn't come on the back of a truck, it doesn't get to your doorstep. We realized that this was an industry that was going to hire somebody as long as they had that license. It didn't matter if they had a promote history. And because of that staff and shortage, they paid actually quite high. Most of our graduates are earning anywhere between $50 to $80,000 a year their first year getting out.


That is five to eight times better than what the average person makes if they do make money at all after they get out of prison. It's life-changing money. And it's also enough money to be able to raise a family and take care of your kids. And what we've seen off the back of this is that people are not returning back to prison in droves. Matter of fact, we have a less than one percent recidivism rate. And so it goes back to this question, well, how do you help people getting out of prison stay out?


And all of the indicators that we've seen of all the research and data that we've seen out there, it turns out that while a job is not all encompassing, it doesn't solve all problems. It's one of the leading reasons why people go back. And by putting people into trucking positions, we can help them stay out.


Branden Harvey

You launched this organization, FreeWorld. What are your expectations in the beginning? Do you expect that it is going to work? I know that when I started Good Good Good, I didn't expect that it was going to work. What were those early feelings like for you?


Jason Wang

I mean, to be quite honest, we had no idea. We called this company FreeWorld because FreeWorld is prison slang for life outside of 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. And so the first year 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.


And it didn't work perfectly in the very beginning because we started to realize--


Branden Harvey

Nothing ever does.


Jason Wang

Yeah, nothing ever does, right? And so many of the issues that people face going through our program at the very beginning, we're the same issues that I face when I got out of prison. And so we start to build out wrap around services around the trucking program. So as an example if somebody's 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 the Uber business platform, and we will literally send a text message out to our students and give them free rides. So that way they can get wherever they need to go. 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.


Branden Harvey

My wife and I have been married for six years, and she still hasn't legally changed her name just because the process is hard and that's the marriage press. That's one of the easiest things to do. And it's still like both of us are like, well, we don't want to sit in line all day, and so imagine if you don't have transportation to get there, like, 100%.


Jason Wang

Let's say you don't have transportation. Well, what are you doing? You're getting on a bus and driving across town, and that bus takes 4 hours to get there. You wait 3 hours in line. And when you get to the front of the desk, they say, all right.


Branden Harvey

You're missing a form.


Jason Wang

Yeah, you're missing a form. And guess what? You have to go back. You have to get that form. And so what happens? Typically today, people go months before they finally get identification. And so we intentionally develop this program from the very get go to be completely online and to solve immediate needs immediately all over your phone. And so you don't have your birth certificate. We will pay for and ship that birth certificate over to you in ten business days. All you have to do is push a button.


For our education services, we realized that many people that are coming out of prison. First of all, 76% of them that apply to our program are minorities and about 70% of them have never had a GED, high school diploma, college degree. I mean, they have no educational background. And so what we did was we started to build online services where we built up trucking curriculum from the ground up. And we had a live online instructor, is one of our instructors. He spent 25 years in prison, and we intentionally try to hire as many people with criminal histories as possible to staff our company.


And he teaches people all the things that you need to know in order to get a license. And once they pass our quizzes and tests, we 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.


Branden Harvey

That's huge because you need people to move through the system fast because you don't want people hanging out. And not to mention, you've got to have housing. You've got to potentially support a family. Time is of the essence. That's huge.


Jason Wang

And for each of our students, we're a nonprofit program. And so part of my job is asking trainers for money, and it is very difficult to scale. So we created a program called the Pay It Forward Program, where we use income share agreements. And under this agreement, each of our students sign a contract where we will invest all the money up front to help them get into a good paying job. And once they graduate, if they're making at least $50,000 per year, they pay 10% of their income for 36 months to help the next couple of students go through school.


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. 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.


Branden Harvey

And that's just got to feel so good to find success. And then for that success, to help bring more people through that fold. And for those people to bring more people through again and again and again, it's a beautiful system. And it is such an important way to give back to communities. And I've just got to say one more thing, too. I'm on your website in another tab right now, and one thing I love is that it's not a traditional nonprofit site because it's not written for me or it's not written for a donor.


You go on there and it is purely information for, it seems to me somebody who just got out of prison and is looking for a second chance and all of the information is written for that person. It's giving the details and the big button isn't "Donate." The big button is "Apply Now." The whole site is built to help these people, and it's written in that way. That's actually very rare and unique and I love that.


Jason Wang

We have intentionally designed this program to be by us, for us. I have a criminal history. The vast majority of my company are people with criminal histories. We understand this problem deeply because we've been through it ourselves. And so everything that we do is built in the best interests of our students. And this pay it forward ethos is not only just in our pay it forward contracts, but we even have three graduates of our program who have saved up enough money to start their own trucking companies.


And they're now hiring our new graduates coming out of school like, it's incredible. So I am constantly inspired by the incredible stories of, let's say, Ken, for example. Ken, when he joined our program, he had been in and out of the prison system his entire life. He had spent over a decade of his life behind bars. And when I met him, he was addicted to meth. He was living in a transitional house, and he had no idea what the future held for him. He applied for a program.


40 days later, he's in a job. And now he jokes about when he was younger, he used to steal from Walmart in order just to get by. Now Walmart is paying him $80,000 a year to haul for them, and he's already paid it forward to help several students go through our program. This is not an isolated incident. This is happening throughout our entire program, and I'm just really, really proud and constantly inspired by our students and how far they're coming in line.


Branden Harvey

This is just exciting. I love a good story of somebody who creates a system that continues to help more and more people. And it's just so exciting to imagine where this will be in five years, in ten years with so many people paying it forward. I just commend you on building this organization that helps so many people, and it's got a ripple effect, too. It's not just helping the people who go through your program. It's supporting their families, it's supporting their communities. It's supporting the economy and the people who need to buy things, which is all of us.


It has so many layers to this, and it's just so exciting. So thank you.


Jason Wang

Yeah. I mean, look, the process of getting a job is only one piece of the equation. By getting people into these careers, we're disrupting that generational cycle of poverty. But 70% of kids who have a parent that's incarcerated will end up in the system themselves. And so by destructing this on the front end, we are significantly reducing the likelihood that the generations to come will end up in the prison system themselves. And in ten years, we're building the infrastructure to graduate a hundred thousand people on a yearly basis. Today, that is local positions in trucking, where you can be at home every single night with your family and still make a good income.


But in the future, we're going to be branching out into other entries like welding and construction, and so many other industries that are facing incredible labor shortages and also pay a living wage.


Branden Harvey

This is so huge. Jason, as we close out this show, I want to finish off by asking, I know that not every listener to this show will have had the life experiences that you had. But I do think that every listener to the show will share the experience of identifying a problem in their lives or identifying a problem in their communities, and perhaps recognizing that they could play a role in being a part of the solution to that. What advice do you have for those who see a problem? It feels big. It feels unjust. They want to take an action step to work towards creating a solution to that, but it feels big. What advice would you have to offer?


Jason Wang

My advice is stay curious, to constantly be learning, and don't allow yourself to be stuck in a mental and emotional prison. So many of us are so fearful about the uncertainty that life and especially being an entrepreneur. And we allow that fear to stop us from taking actual direct action into achieving that dream. So stay curious. Learn, talk to people. Like be a lifelong learner. Number two, be fearless. Many people, if you really think about it, what's the worst that could happen? I'm coming at this from the standpoint of like, look, I went to prison.


I had my entire life shift away from me. And so I am fearless and almost everything that I do because I've had nothing before and because I've experienced that. I'm not worried about going back to that in the future. I face that fear and I live through it. And when you look at most people today, they have social safety nets that they can always fall back on. Family, friends, not like whatever it is, right? So be fearless and go out there and just try it out.


What's the worst that can happen?


Branden Harvey

That's Jason Wang, the CEO of FreeWorld. Second chances don't come by often, and they're not always easy. With the United States' inhumane mass incarceration rates, it is important that people like Jason are using their experiences to fight the system. It's important that we show support to those folks on the front lines doing that work as well. Thanks to Jason and FreeWorld, other ex felons are getting a chance at rebuilding their lives in meaningful ways. You can support their work by going to join freeworld.com


And you can also follow Jason on Twitter @JasonWaang with two As. Once again, I want to highlight that if you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal ideation or are struggling with your mental health, please reach out for help. You can text Hello to 741741 to reach a crisis counselor for free. This podcast was created by Good Good Good. At Good Good Good, we help you feel more hopeful and do more good. You can find more good news and ways to make a difference in our weekly email newsletter, our beautiful print Goodnewspaper or online at our all new website goodgoodgood.co.


This episode was created by Sara Li, Megan Burns and me, Branden Harvey. It was edited and sound designed by the team at Sound On Studios. You can find out more about their work at soundonsoundoff.com. Please make sure to hit the follow button wherever you listen to podcasts, share podcast with your friends and with that, that is a wrap for this week's episode. Go out and create a solution you wish you had when you were younger and we'll be back next week with more good news and good action.


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Episode Details

September 6, 2021

About Sounds Good

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Sounds Good is the weekly podcast that hosts hopeful conversations with optimists and world-changers about the headlines we can be hopeful about — and how you can get involved and make a difference.

Every week, Good Good Good founder Branden Harvey sits down with the people driving positive change against the world's greatest problems. Each episode will leave you with a sense of hope about the good in the world — and a sense of direction on how we can all be a part of that good. Episodes are released every Monday.

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