Designing solutions in successful prisoner reentry for Tipping Point Community

This project was conducted as one of nine members in the inaugural fellowship class of Tipping Point’s T Lab – an R&D lab within the nonprofit, focused on prototyping human-centered design solutions for local social impact. Their mission is to eradicate poverty in the Bay Area.

Given a blue-sky design brief focused on Prisoner Reentry, my team of three conducted six-month design project around improving the reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals into society, with the goal of being able to prototype and test a ‘solution’ within that time frame.

We designed and conducted user-research with variety of stakeholders, including those currently and formerly incarcerated, those providing services for returning citizens, as well as legal representatives.

User research

In synthesis, we distilled the initial broad brief into eight interest areas, spanning the pre-arrest to post-release journey, and effectively formed a set of design principles that summarized opportunity areas for solutions.

Design principles

A concept development phase included running brainstorms, resolving several concepts and communicating them back to stakeholders via storyboard critiques. Ultimately one service was developed for prototype pilot testing.

In prototyping with a group of men and women, one of our main insights was that people needed extraordinary support in the immediate transition out of incarceration — on release day and in the month that follows — in order to keep moving in a positive direction. They also faced many small challenges that, if left unaddressed in the overwhelming first few days and month out, could lead to permanent obstacles.

Focus groups

We also found that some of those newly released are willing and eager to support others who are getting out. This helps them feel good about themselves, in a situation where they might not have any other ways to do that. We observed that helping others in turn helped them.

The service designed, called ‘First Mile’, is a peer support system centered around reducing anxiety upon release, incorporating a very human approach to reentry, and helping to overcome the small barriers that have potential to lead to permanent obstacles. We partnered with San Mateo County Jails and ran a six-week pilot at the San Mateo Women’s Facility.

Trial calendar

The pilot consisted of nine women from the San Mateo County Jail Women’s Transitional Facility in Redwood City. Over that time, we held two inside meetings, created nine personalized release kits, and conducted four outside meet-ups.

The service was received well and one of the larger Bay Area counties is now interested in running a further pilot for their newly released. For Tipping Point, we were able to show that a short human-centered design process could, in just 6 mos, result in ideas and solutions that had some measurable social impact.

More information can be found on the team’s blog, where we described our design process, insights and details of the service designed, at key points throughout the project.