Defy Ventures is a nonprofit that uses entrepreneurship and coaching to transform the lives and legacies of people with criminal histories. On June 25, 2019, a cohort of forty-six men at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, Calif., graduated from their signature training program. The program, called CEO of Your New Life, facilitates mentorship between Silicon Valley and California’s prisoners by bringing leaders in tech, business, and finance to volunteer inside the prison walls. There, they teach important life and business skills that help the men inside -- referred to by Defy as entrepreneurs-in-training -- rise up above their circumstances and defy the odds that incarceration places against them.

Society often assigns people with criminal histories one-dimensional identities that place incarceration at the center. By bringing the viewer up close with the phenomenon of mass incarceration, this project seeks to show the tenderness of people in the criminal justice system, and posits that vulnerability is an enormous act of defiance in a system that seeks to erase one’s complex humanity.

As volunteers arrive, the entrepreneurs-in-training, or EITs, line up in a tunnel formation. The room is alive with cheering and music. Some EITs dance to calm their nerves.

After introductions and networking, the business pitch competition begins. EITs pitch their novels, dog training services, custom t-shirt companies, bakeries, and other business ideas. Their ability to tell their own stories is central to the success of their pitches.

The emotional crest of the day is an activity called Step to the Line. Volunteers and EITs stand across from each other, and step forward when the facilitator makes a statement that is true for them. For many of the volunteers, the exercise creates visual evidence of the racial and economic disparities that exist in mass incarceration. It also illustrates the similarities between both sides, and blurs the line between who is criminal and who is not.

The EITs change into graduation regalia and line up to receive their completion certificates in front of family members and loved ones. For several of the men, this is their first time wearing a cap and gown.

People returning from America’s prisons face enormous odds when trying to put their pasts behind them. A criminal conviction greatly diminishes one's access to affordable housing, employment, education, and public services. This makes it more difficult for people with convictions to reintegrate into society, and in turn, two out of three returned citizens recidivate within three years of their release.

The recidivism rate for Defy graduates is 7.2%. 

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