[Interview] Reimagining Reentry with Stacey Putka, Executive Director at Breakthrough
Checkr chats with Stacey Putka, Executive Director at Breakthrough, on the organization’s mission and vision to prepare incarcerated individuals for successful reentry, plus best practices for employers to start fair chance hiring.
Stacey Putka is the Executive Director at Breakthrough, a Colorado based 501c3 non-profit that helps people who have been incarcerated redefine their futures and embrace new possibilities while radically altering the community’s perception of the incarcerated population.
Breakthrough’s holistic approach includes an in-facility career education program, community engagement, re-entry support, a fair opportunity hiring program, and criminal justice advocacy initiatives.
We (virtually) sat down with Stacey to discuss how she came to find this work, the volunteer opportunities Breakthrough operates, and best practices for employers ready to make a difference and hire fair chance talent.
Let’s get to it!
Hi Stacey! To start off, tell me about Breakthrough and your role as Executive Director.
Stacey Putka: I’ve been with Breakthrough since its inception. We started in 2017 as an organization under a larger national umbrella. In early 2018, we started a project to localize operations, which completed last summer in 2021.
Localizing has made us more nimble and able to adapt to the needs of our program participants. That’s because as people come home from periods of incarceration, there are different requirements from each individual state’s Department of Corrections.
For example, our national parent organization has a chapter in the curriculum on how to obtain a ‘certificate of rehabilitation’. These certificates are only mandated in certain states, and this type of certificate doesn’t exist in Colorado.
We were spending a lot of time deciphering each state’s unique requirements. By localizing our efforts, we can dive deep into the reentry process here to understand what the Colorado system requires, which helps us to better educate the people we serve.
We’re figuring out how incarcerated people can set up specific logistical tasks before they get home, such as: getting an ID, enrolling in Medicare, and other basic steps regarding reentry.
In my role right as executive director, I set the vision for the organization and get everyone moving in that direction. Sometimes that’s project management, and sometimes that’s fundraising—making sure that we have enough money to do what we do. Mostly, though, my role is to ensure that we all see the common vision and that we’re taking little steps every day to move us in that direction. We are a very small team of four people so we each wear a lot of different hats.
Can you tell me about the journey that brought you to Breakthrough?
Stacey Putka: My dad struggled with addiction for a large part of his life and got sober right before I was born. He had gone to rehab and never kept that a secret from me.
Every morning when I’d wake up, I’d see him journaling while he ate his oatmeal. Overall, he was very regimented.
Naturally, as a curious kid, I would ask him why he did things so specifically. He would always tell me that it was for his sobriety. He needed to think about things differently and show up in a different way in order to maintain that.
He was the best dad ever. He was a small business owner and maintained sobriety for the rest of his life. I was always so inspired by that.
I decided that I wanted to become a counselor to help other people who are experiencing addiction have the same opportunity in life that my dad did after he went to rehab.
After receiving my undergraduate degree in psychology and my masters in social work, I started doing addiction treatment right out of school.
“I realized our criminal justice system has become a catch-all for people in society that are being failed by all of our other systems.”
But, I never really connected the dots until I was working in my first full-time job as a clinician: that I’ve always worked with the justice involved population as they were always mandated to treatment. I realized our criminal justice system has become a catch-all for people in society that are being failed by all of our other systems.
When people don’t have adequate access to substance abuse treatment or mental health treatment, they end up inside [in prison]. A lot of poverty leads to incarceration. In my time as a clinician, I worked with about 200 men and women coming home on parole. And the majority went back to prison.
I felt beat down, disheartened, and frustrated. Sometimes with my patients, but much more with the system itself.
For example, I’d have an individual come home, and he’d be on a mental health hold, which required him to do an intake within two weeks. However, our schedule only allowed for an intake in three weeks, so he’d be waiting, stuck, for all that time. Still, he’d be required to get a job within a week—but he’s on hold. He can’t leave the community corrections facility as he’s waiting for us to get him in for an intake.
Now this man is in trouble because he doesn’t have a job, but he’s also not allowed to leave until his intake. The system was not set up for success in any way.
“I felt beat down, disheartened, and frustrated. Sometimes with my patients, but much more with the system itself. “
That’s why I love the work that we do at Breakthrough, because we can collaborate with the Department of Corrections and navigate within existing structures.
We have more flexibility and we can do things in a different and creative way. We’re doing what we know best and they’re doing what they know best. It can become this symbiotic process instead of trying to teach a corrections officer how to be a reentry specialist. That’s not what they do, but it is what we do.
Walk me through Breakthrough’s The Challenge Program and the in-facility volunteer and mentorship opportunities.
Stacey Putka: The Challenge Program is our eight month in-prison education program that covers four major buckets of content: the entrepreneurial mindset, reentry preparation, job readiness training, and character development.
Let me walk you through the four content buckets. With the entrepreneurial mindset, we’re not asking people to come out and start a business the next day. Rather, we want them to think like an owner and use that owner’s mindset in whatever job or field they end up working in.
Reentry preparation is really important for all the people we serve in prisons. We have a very specific reentry pack where we figure out all the different resources they need, where they have gaps, and where they need support. That way, our reentry specialist can start identifying how to fill those gaps for them before they even come home.
Job readiness includes resume writing, cover letter writing, and interviewing. We teach participants an interview statement to use as a way to disclose their history in future job interviews.
And lastly, the character development bucket is a combination of eight different soft skills that they learn related to a growth mindset.
You have to have a growth mindset to successfully make it through the process of reentry into society and the workforce. In the entrepreneurial portion, a growth mindset is similarly important—so this is a theme that runs through the entire Challenge Program. Furthermore, the eight soft skills they learn at the beginning of the program are very foundational to the rest of the skills they learn throughout the eight-month experience.
Our program director is currently the facilitator for the three prisons that we work in. She teaches classes on a weekly basis. The program is punctuated by four major events throughout the eight months.
“You have to have a growth mindset to successfully make it through the process of reentry into society and the workforce.”
The four major events include a kickoff, a casual meeting for people in the prison to learn about the program and understand what they can expect over the next 32 weeks. We take volunteers into that event at a one-to-one ratio so participants can meet the volunteers who will be a part of the process.
Volunteers can continue to participate throughout the rest of the program. They can choose to volunteer in class sessions, where our program director facilitates and volunteers will engage in small- and large- group activities to help bring a different perspective on the skill that our people are learning that day.
Next, we have a mock interview day. Again, we’ll bring volunteers at the one-to-one ratio to do mock interviews, review resumes, and give folks that real world experience of sitting across from someone in an interview.
The third event is a business pitch boot camp, which takes place after a couple weeks of entrepreneurial education and business ideation where participants share their business idea and receive some coaching and feedback.
Then, we split people into teams around different business ideas. The person who came up with the idea becomes the leader of the group. Others will take on the role of CFO and COO and the groups work together to help bring that specific business to life throughout the rest of the class.
At the very end of the course, we have a business pitch competition and a graduation ceremony, where volunteers come and judge the competition and cheer everyone on while they graduate.
We’ve held around 700 volunteer trips to the three prisons that we work at and Checkr has been a huge supporter, bringing large groups of volunteers to come in, including Checkr’s CEO Daniel Yanisse.
Can you talk about the importance of building empathy and soft-skills in your programs?
Stacey Putka: Our philosophy was informed by our people. A few years ago when I was working as the program manager running the classes every week—it was striking to hear people talk about what the sense of community meant to them and what the volunteers meant to them.
So we started to shift more toward that emphasis on soft skills and empathy.
The participants let us know that while they do need entrepreneurship and job readiness skills to be successful in their careers—to be successful as individuals—they need to see themselves as people who belong to a larger community.
People would tell me that when you’re inside, you don’t feel like a person, you don’t feel like the community values you or cares about you.
And I can empathize with that. If people see you only as an inmate or an offender or a prisoner, and they don’t give you that humanity, why would you behave any differently? They already have this expectation of you that can be dehumanizing, so that’s why we pushed more toward building empathy and community.
We prepare them as best we possibly can to sit in a job interview and tell someone about their history and talk about who they are now and who they want to become. But, if the employer who’s hearing that can’t see past their own stigmas and their own stereotypes, then we haven’t really done our job. Building that empathy is so important on both sides—we need the community to have empathy for the incarcerated population in order that they can have a fair opportunity to succeed when they come home.
Let’s talk about employers. What is Breakthrough’s Fair Opportunity Employer Program and some of the best practices you’ve found to help employers hire and retain fair opportunity talent?
Stacey Putka: The Fair Opportunity Employer Program is our way of engaging with employers so that they can understand the value of hiring people with criminal histories.
There are three major ways that we hope to engage fair opportunity employers. One way is that they commit to hiring people with criminal histories and learning about how to do that in an effective way.
Secondly, we want employers to bring their people in to volunteer because that really builds momentum for more buy-in from the rest of the organization.
The third way we engage employers is through donation. A lot of organizations are looking to make donations, especially with younger generations moving into leadership roles. They don’t want to simply throw money at something. Rather, they want to be involved in the mission. When employers can hire, volunteer, and donate—it’s a really good experience for the corporation.
Once an employer has committed to hiring fair chance talent, we send them a toolkit that offers 10 best practices for obtaining and maintaining fair opportunity talent. We’ll also share information on the financial benefits. We educate people on the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, the Federal Bonding and on the job reimbursement. We create one-pagers and decks to give employers as much information as possible.
“When we’re trying to change the way an entire society thinks about a group of people, reposting a Facebook post or forwarding a newsletter can make all the difference in changing someone’s perspective about individuals with criminal histories.”
In terms of best practices, the first one is clearly defining the job. We found that companies that do fair opportunity employment have a lot more success bringing on new talent when the job description doesn’t say things like ‘high school diploma required’. Instead, it outlines what skills someone actually needs so that even if the job-seeker doesn’t have the degrees or the certifications, they might have experience that has given them the skills required to perform on the job.
Other tips in the toolkit include adding additional company resources and ensuring that employees are educated about them, so if companies have, for example, transportation assistance, continuing education reimbursements or healthcare options, we encourage employers to prioritize educating onboarding employees on these benefits.
Also, identifying recruiting channels, similar to Checkr, partnering with local nonprofits and organizations so that employers have a pipeline of fair opportunity talent coming in.
More best practices include standardizing interviews and using references. People with criminal histories often don’t have recent work history outside of working in the system or have a gap in their resume, so using references helps to get a sense for who someone is now and how they show up in the world.
We offer tips on the interview process and best practices on individualized assessment panels, how to build an onboarding program where people feel comfortable, which may require providing additional reentry support. People with criminal histories may face barriers that other employees don’t, so you have to be prepared to hire as well as retain fair opportunity talent.
Ultimately, our job is to educate employers. Our reentry specialist and our program director will sit down with employers and do a deep dive into the best practices to help them create their own sustainable processes.
What can the audience expect from your session at TEDxSanQuentin?
Stacey Putka: They can expect to love my co-presenter, Javay Raibon! He is an amazing guy and has the best energy. It’s been so fun to prep with him.
They can also expect to experience what it’s like to volunteer with us, which is a sense of empathy and building an understanding of people who are incarcerated for the complex individuals that they are, pulling people out of the bucket of stereotypes that they’ve developed over time.
They can expect to feel a lot of emotions—but it’s also going to be very fun and really humanizing.
How can people get involved with Breakthrough?
Stacey Putka: Come in and volunteer with us! That’s the first step to get involved. And there are a ton of opportunities beyond that, but we really want people to see our program and see our people and get a sense for the organization and what it’s like to volunteer with us.
If people can’t commit the time—because it is a big commitment—volunteering takes a whole day and involves driving to a correctional facility in rural Colorado, people can get involved by simply following us on social media and subscribing to our newsletter. Help to spread the word by reposting our posts or forwarding along our newsletter to people you think might be interested.
Those things seem small and they seem like marketing, but when we’re trying to change the way an entire society thinks about a group of people, reposting a Facebook post or forwarding a newsletter can make all the difference in changing someone’s perspective about individuals with criminal histories.
Thank you so much for sharing your insight. I can’t wait to see your session at TEDxSanQuentin on April 28!
Stacey Putka: Thank you for having me and I can’t wait for people to see all the incredible speakers at TEDxSanQuentin.
Watch Stacey and Javay’s session and all other TEDxSanQuentin sessions here, or by clicking below.
The Story of Two Different Denvers
What do a beauty pageant contestant and an incarcerated former gang member have in common? Listen as Stacey and Javay share how their individual circumstances impacted their childhood dreams and their ability to fulfill them.