One of the biggest challenges of the criminal justice system is how to re-integrate people into public life after they have served their sentence in jail or prison. Among the most important tasks upon one’s release is finding a steady job. This process is difficult enough, but it can be especially difficult for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD).
A new project by GeoGroup, Arizona Vocational Rehabilitation, Collaborative Technology Solutions, Livescribe, and the Sonoran Center for Excellence in Disabilities is hoping to make that process easier.
The Kingman Project aims to connect individuals with disabilities in the Arizona justice system to vocational rehabilitation and other supportive community agencies,which can help ensure successful employment upon release.
“The Kingman Project is helping to close the gap for justice involved individuals with disabilities, and supporting them with access to post-release employment services,” said Genise Burnett, CEO of Collaborative Technology Solutions and project leader.
“We really believe that the Kingman project lays the groundwork that all VR state agencies and prison facilities can use to ensure that every individual with a disability has access to resources that provide an equitable and supportive pathway to employment,” she continued.
The Sonoran Center for Excellence in Disabilities plays a key role in this project: providing the research that serves as the blueprint upon which the project’s efforts will be built. Such research includes studies determining which types of support are most helpful for people with I/DD, and what strategies are successful in keeping people with I/DD engaged throughout the whole process.
“Without adequate research and evaluation, without data, we don’t have anything substantial to keep pushing things further and keep supporting this community,” Burnett said. “This evaluation is going to be really important. It will impact the community and provide a framework for all other agencies and facilities to follow.”
The project has been ongoing since August of 2022, and gets its name from the Kingman prison facility, where the project started. Since January of 2023, Arizona Vocational Rehabilitation and the project partners have been collaborating with inmates in the Kingman prison to connect them with resources to help them find stable employment.
“They self-advocate, so nothing is forced or anything like that,” Burnett said, regarding the individuals working with the project. “[They say things like] ‘I have a disability - I want to partake in these services so I can be successful upon release”
The project has also been able to follow up with some of these individuals and get an idea of how well they adjust using the resources available to them.
”We know one in the Bullhead City area. He just went to a job fair. He participated in a post-release JRT class. Now he’s currently working with a job coach to hone those skills. He’s got a whole brand new set of teeth, and Vocational Rehab is supporting him in getting a new wardrobe to help with those interviews, so he’s feeling a lot more confident.”
The project was started out of a desire to help those with the “double vulnerability” of being disabled and incarcerated. People experiencing this double vulnerability often have worse outcomes upon being released, in terms of finding suitable employment.
“The goal was to empower a population who experiences double vulnerabilities: Those who are justice involved and those who have a disability.” Burnett said. “Each day, individuals are being released from prison and begin seeking employment without the necessary skills to successfully maintain that employment. Justice involved individuals with disabilities receive even less access to resources that are able to adequately support them in attaining and maintaining successful employment opportunities. The collaboration between GeoGroup, Arizona VR, and Collaborative Technology Solutions has really provided a conduit for ensuring that all justice-involved individuals with disabilities have an opportunity to get the necessary skills and supports to maintain employment.”
As with the justice-involved population without disabilities, a major challenge is simply making people aware of the options that are available to them. When it comes to individuals with I/DD, that information also has to be accessible and understandable to them.
“The difficulty is that there is a lack of communication and knowledge for individuals who are incarcerated. They just don’t know about the resources that are available to them,” Burnett explained. “A lot of citizens with disabilities in Arizona don’t even know about Vocational Rehabilitation. So that lack of knowledge is there. I think that’s where Arizona VR, Geogroup, and the community partners are really stepping in and just making people feel comfortable self-advocating.”
Assistive technologies can be a huge help to people with disabilities. However, the knowledge of available assistive technologies and ways they can be used could be greatly expanded.
“These are the individuals being lost in the system, knowing that they have some sort of disability, but not having access to the resources to support them, whether that be adjustment to disability services, or assistive technology. Imagine being able to have access to a smart pen to help those who have a Traumatic Brain Injury or something similar.”
To address this, another unique part of the Kingman Project is its use of assistive technologies. In line with Sonoran Center’s Technology First initiative, the project aims to educate both inmates and staff about assistive technologies. The goal is also to provide some of these technologies as well, so that inmates are better able to communicate their wants and needs to their support staff, and staff can communicate with inmates about how those needs can be met.
“Livescribe was really happy to be involved. The CEO of Livescribe was excited to donate a set of pens to the facility, and provide some for the staff. They were able to try them out and use them themselves, creating that awareness that ‘Hey, this could benefit so and so, let me tell them about it’. So they were definitely great, being a part of that AT first initiative that AZ is trying to enact.”
Looking ahead, the project aims to expand to all four of the prisons operated by GeoGroup in Arizona. Along with Kingman, these include Florence-West, Phoenix-West, and Central Arizona.
The project also plans to work with the Arizona Department of Corrections to expand VR and early identifying services.