By Ashley Benkarski
NASHVILLE, TN — Underguard Teleservices is a fairly new private business with an interesting pitch: their call center outsourcing employees are inmates.
Sibling duo Kyle and Kelly Hannah are continuing their father Casey’s business venture after his passing a few years ago.
As a prison minister Casey empathized with those society had forgotten and, recognizing the importance of second chances, worked with Kyle to merge his son’s business venture with his faith-based values by hiring incarcerated workers.
When people think of inmate occupations, manual labor often comes to mind. While these jobs are a majority of those performed by the incarcerated population, the Prison Policy Initiative’s (PPI) website explains that a major problem faced by incarcerated laborers is that the jobs they’re performing aren’t giving them skills relevant to the current job market.
Operating through the Tennessee Rehabilitative Initiative in Correction (TRICOR) program, the call center allows a more social occupation that provides its own set of skills in professional and casual interactions.
Poverty isn’t just a contributor to criminal activity but a major reason people become repeat offenders. For many, meager earnings are further diminished by fees and deductions, and necessary items sold to inmates are egregiously expensive.
The negative stigma faced by formerly incarcerated workers keeps them from finding a job with wages to survive.
Further, those with felony convictions are often barred from receiving government benefit programs, PPI reported.
All this leaves the question of how someone recently released from prison can afford to live or support their family with no savings, no income and very limited access to social safety nets, if at all.
When delving into this topic, one of the first solutions would be to pay incarcerated workers more while they serve their time. And while Kyle would like to do that, the state regulates how much these laborers can make.
In six states, PPI reported, some workers make nothing. If this injustice is to be remedied, it will take a push from the public to lobby on behalf of higher wages for the imprisoned.
Last year Underguard launched their work-from-home division allowing employees to continue working after their release and also provides the necessary equipment to perform their job.
PPI’s 2021 report noted Tennessee’s incarceration rate of 838 per 100,000 people (including prisons, jails, immigration detention, and juvenile justice facilities) means it imprisons a higher percentage of its people than any democracy on earth.
Over 250 women, formerly and currently incarcerated, have been employed through Hannah’s business. He wants other companies to consider the path he’s taken.
Cynthia Gilliam, one of the first former inmates to participate in Underguard’s remote work program, underscored the significance of the human perspective when Kyle interviewed her for his Prosperity After Prison podcast. Casey, she said, was dedicated to helping the employees every step of the way. “He touched a whole lot of lives in a really dark place,” she told Kyle.
“Nobody wants to give offenders a second chance, but we’re human … We have families to feed, we have bills like everyone else,” Gilliam stated.
You can listen to the Prosperity After Prison podcast on Spotify.
To learn more about TRICOR visit www.tn.gov/tricor/. For information on Underguard Teleservices visit ugteleservices.com.