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Dismas House

A digital resource for the Dismas House Residents of Vermont
to ease re-entry post-incarceration

ABOUT
Breaking Down Re-Entry Barriers

Dismas of Vermont is a non-profit whose mission is reconciling formerly incarcerated people to society and society to formerly incarcerated people in order to create a more just, safe, and productive Vermont.

After 5 months of collaborating with the Hartford Dismas house, we designed the Dismas Resident Hub as a digital resource to enable access to customized employment, housing, and transportation in Vermont.

ROLE

Product designer

DELIVERABLE

Dismas Resident Hub

YouTube Channel

TIMELINE

January - June 2022

1
Challenge
Reconciliation post incarceration

There are discriminatory practices imbedded within society that strip formerly incarcerated individuals of a second chance. 

As of now, there are limited resources dedicated to formerly incarcerated people's transition back into society.


We identified the three major re-entry barriers in the Vermont society as employment, housing, and transportation. The lasting criminalization embedded within government policies threaten formerly incarcerated people’s freedom, health and safety.

2
Process

Key terminology

There are key concepts and terms specific to the community we are working with that will be consistently used throughout this case study and are essential to understanding the nature of our project.

RECIDIVISM: The cyclical process of formerly incarcerated individuals colliding with the justice system, and facing re-incarceration.

RE-ENTRY PROCESS: The transitional period formerly incarcerated people experience after leaving the carceral system.

RESIDENT: Person who was involved with the justice system and is currently living at Dismas House.

CSS (Community Services Specialist): A staff role both in facilities and field offices, also referred to as Caseworker (facility) or Probation/Parole Officer (PO) in the field.

Words matter when describing people involved in the justice system, as language can have a significant impact upon health, wellbeing, and access to information and services. However, terminology used in policies, programs, and research publications is often derogatory, stigmatizing, and dehumanizing.

Our process

Throughout the 5 months that I was with my team, we conducted primary research with users, synthesized findings to frame a compelling problem statement, and brainstormed, prototyped, and tested various solutions.

User empathy begins with research

Once we learned our design challenge and the scope of our project with the Dismas House, we knew we needed more context and data to help us ask the right questions and further understand the context of transitioning into society after incarceration.

 

We used the internet as a resource to explore secondary research by gathering information from journals, books, news articles, and podcasts.

 

We then organized all of our research into three categories:

History: Discovering the origins and progression of re-entry programs

Barriers: Identifying the systematic obstacles that hinder community members lives after incarceration

Reintegration: Exploring organizational or community-led efforts to restore formerly incarcerated individuals back to society

RESEARCH METHOD 1: HISTORY

The history of re-entry programs

Re-entry programs can be traced to the mid-1900s, when states implemented the use of parole boards to monitor and approve the release of all prisoners.

 

The following timeline shares re-entry programs and their history:

Rita Whalen McCaffrey brought the idea of the Nashville Dismas House to Burlington

Second Chance Act authorizes federal funding for state and federal

re-entry programs

National Re-entry Resource Center continues to provide resources

Timeline.png

President Bush passes The President's Prisoner Re-entry Initiative (PRI) Federal Bureau of Prisons Residential Reentry Centers

Obama pushes the Federal Interagency Reentry Council

A photo of Rita Whalen McCraffrey who organized a task force in Burlington of dedicated prison volunteers, to expand volunteer services to the incarcerated; Courtesy of Dismas House
RESEARCH METHOD 2: PRIMARY RESEARCH

Connecting with the Vermont community

We collected primary research from stakeholders involved throughout the end-to-end re-entry process: everything from initially arriving at Dismas on one’s release day (Sam, Resident Transition Coordinator) to finding a job locally (Dan, from Dan & Whit’s).

We found that our semi-structured, yet conversational interviews with our stakeholders were the most valuable way to understand our users' perspectives to design a platform that would make the most impact. 

Some of our Dismas friends!

Stretching far and wide

Our primary research included conducting semi-structured, yet conversational interviews with the Dismas House Executive Director and House Director, a Department of Corrections Parole Officer, two local business employers, two Dismas House alumni, a Dartmouth Digital Design Director, and a Director of Community Safety Services at St. Anthony’s Foundation in San Francisco, CA.

 

Not only did these people serve a prominent role in our research process, but we were also able to form connections with each of them. These connections allowed us to include them in our co-creation efforts throughout the design process.

Community Connections

Sam, Resident Transition Coordinator

Sam has provided insight on the resident transition process by sharing how she helps residents set realistic goals and securing houses

Our interview questions focussed on the management behind the Dismas house, and new resident onboarding.

Sam and I discussing the current Dismas resources

Dan, Dan and Whit’s General Store
Dan is the owner of Dan and Whit's, a well-known general store in Norwich, VT. He has experience hiring Dismas residents, and it was eye-opening talking to him about his relationship with Dismas. 

He expressed that as a liberal community, Norwich residents encourage hiring Dismas residents. Due to workforce discrimination and stigma, residents can be overlooked. However, because of Dismas’s positive connection with the Vermont community, local employers like Dan know how much of an impact residents can have on his business. 

Our design team with Dan, owner of Dan & Whit's General Store
Dinner at Dismas 

Visit 1

Our first Dismas House visit was an immersive experience that gave us the opportunity to become acclimated with the Dismas culture and the residents.

 

At the house, we connected with each resident, prepared a home-cooked meal, and got to know them over dinner. During their weekly community meeting we introduced our goal to improve the resident

re-entry experience.

 

The House Director, Jeff, helped us break the ice by asking people to share the struggles they have experienced post-incarceration. The residents opened up immediately, sharing impactful sentiments and painpoints in their journey to resume life outside of incarceration.

Our first Dismas Dinner. We made spaghetti and meat sauce!

Visit 2

For our second Dismas House dinner, we wanted to involve residents in the defining and brainstorming steps of the design process.

 

We shared our insights with the residents, received feedback on them, and then held a co-creation session.

 

Based on the insights we shared and the barriers they identified, we brainstormed potential solutions with the residents and gathered themes based on their proposed ideas.

Sharing our insights with Dismas

Visits 3 & 4

During our third and fourth Dismas House visits, we facilitated experiential prototyping sessions with them.

 

These were an opportunity to introduce them to rudimentary ideas of our proposed solution, get their feedback on the work we had done so far, as well as share opportunities for improvement.

 

We also used these sessions to better understand their aspirations for the solution we were designing with them, as well as the extent to which they would want to engage with it.

Conducting prototype sessions

Visits 5 & 6

By this point, we had formed really meaningful relationships with the residents in the house. We got to go to the Dismas House Spring Cleanup Day to paint the house, plant in the garden, and even enjoy some hamburgers! 

We were at the final stages of our prototyping process, and there was so much excitement among the house with the digital solution we were creating. 

Re-painting the walls on spring clean up day

Research Analysis

We used a range of design thinking tools to visualize the influence and impact of the range of stakeholders we were interviewing. This not only helped us outline all of the various people that interact with Dismas, but how to best focus our design efforts. After each interview and Dismas visit, we compiled our findings into four categories to efficiently extract insights.

Click to view full research activities

Research insights 

INSIGHT 1:

Jarring Job Process

Despite their willingness to go above and beyond when given job opportunities, job hunting daunts residents who fear prejudice from employers and feel technologically inexperienced.

SPECIFICATION 1:

Our solution must...

Include informational resources to make the job search process less intimidating for residents and encourage them to search for roles confidently.

“I went to go online to apply [to jobs] and it was a nightmare… I literally was unable to get to Dominos’ simple website to fill out an application, and I’m not completely computer illiterate. It frustrates me.”

- Dismas Resident

INSIGHT 2:

Movement costs

The lack of transportation means more than a missed day of work for residents. It can cause anxiety in needing to rely on others to get to work without wanting to feel like a burden.

SPECIFICATION 2:

Our solution must...

Help residents understand how to navigate Upper Valley transit and connect them with alternative transportation options.

“Transportation in Vermont is pretty huge…for most of these guys, forget about having a car…they don’t even have their license because they have so many fines or DUIs.”

- Heather, Parole Officer

INSIGHT 3:

The Recipe for Success

While landing a job is a key step in re-entry, it is the combination of employment, essential resources, and community activities which leads to long-term success.

SPECIFICATION 3:

Our solution must...

Holistically approach re-entry by providing resources to assist residents with finding housing, legal guidance, and community activities.

“I was going there every day, and now they’re like family... For my birthday, they literally went out and got me a huge cake and cards. There's such good people and me? I have an upside-down cross on my face. They just accept you.

- Dismas Resident

Prototyping & feedback

We approached our prototyping process with the intention of constantly iterating and seeking feedback from Dismas residents, Dismas staff, and the Dartmouth Community. As stated in our solution, our research indicated a prominent need for creating a digital platform to access re-entry resources.

We created prototype plans to help facilitate this process. As we prototyped our solutions, we gave our computers to residents and employers and allowed them to navigate throughout the platform. As they explored the platform, we asked them to self-narrate any thoughts. 

PROTOTYPE 1

Dismas Job Hunter

Key features: 

  • Designed in Figma

  • Three primary tabs: jobs, employers, and transportation

Feedback:

  • “A digital platform customized for Dismas would seamlessly fit into our onboarding process.”

  • “I don’t have access to my own computer at Dismas. Is there a way I could access this website on my Android?” - Dismas Resident

Prototype 1
Prototype 2

PROTOTYPE 2:

Resident and Admin View

Key features: 

  • Designed in Figma, links to Google Drive

  • Mobile accessibility and admin and resident login

Feedback:

  • “I love how friendly this website is with all the graphics and photos. It really humanized the job search process.”

  • “There is too much information on here. The hierarchy of tabs is confusing, and I’m feeling lost on which information is for employers.”

PROTOTYPE 3

Google Sites

Key features: 

  • Made on Google sites for faster development

  • Less upkeep and labor on the back-end for Dismas Staff

Feedback:

  • “I 100% would use this. It would be a huge benefit to people of Dismas. I think this is really exciting and I would definitely use it."

  • "What if you included an FAQ on how employers can connect with residents? One of the biggest hesitancies employers have is wondering ‘Is it OK if I ask that?’”

Prototype 3
Prototype 3

PROTOTYPE 4

Firespring

Key features: 

  • Made on Firespring, the current Dismas web platform 

  • Zero onboarding from the Dismas staff 

Feedback:

  • The site is instantly implementable from Firespring, with no development needed

  • Limited customization: Firespring is very rigid in its settings. The colors and fonts are pre-set, so we are constrained to their style guide.

3
Solution

The Dismas Resident Hub is an online navigation hub allowing residents (past & present) to access essential resources such as employment, transportation, and more. The Dismas Resident Hub exists within the current Dismas website.

Our solution was designed to ensure that Dismas residents have the resources needed to find long-term jobs, and empower them to work towards independent lives beyond Dismas.

"People know digital better now than ever. A digital platform is the move. I'm happy to have all of our resident resources as a one-stop-shop."

- Dismas Resident

Dismas Resident Hub.png

Dismas Resident Hub

Design decision breakdown:

Resident independence:

Every employer listed on the Resident Hub is excited to hire Dismas residents. This gives residents the power to reach out to employers independently and to have a full understanding of the opportunities right in front of them. 

Community engagement:

Whether it's learning more how to use different modes of transportation, such as how to take the Green Transit line, or finding ways to play pick-up basketball in the community, residents are equipped with ways to connect with Vermont beyond the house. 

Immediately implementable:

Our digital solution lives on the existing Firespring website. Now, the Dismas staff are able to upload new resources and job postings to the resident hub in seconds. Provided that Dismas is already paying for the main site, adding the resident hub comes at zero extra cost. 

Seamless onboarding:

The Dismas staff is already familiar with updating content to the Dismas site. While many of them are already familiar with the Firespring backend, we created a step-by-step handoff document on further instructions on maintaining the Dartmouth Dismas style.

Dismas Feedback.png
4
Impact
Designing for an inclusive future

Throughout the past 20 weeks, our team has been able to grow and flourish as we worked with our project partners. Given the systemic and pervasive nature of life post-incarceration, we began to understand the ways that design serves as a medium for empathizing with populations who face seemingly invisible, yet tangible and widespread discrimination.

Today, every new resident is onboarded to the Dismas Residential Hub. We have increased site traffic to an average of 11 visits a day on the Dismas community computers!

We would like to express immense gratitude to all of the current and alumni residents of Dismas House for sharing their stories, perspectives, and time with us. While we wish to protect the identities of residents due to the prolonged stigmas of incarceration, we want to acknowledge that without them and their willingness to speak with us from a place of openness and vulnerability, we would not have been able to immerse ourselves within this project and use that to propel our solution.

Spring cookout at Dismas
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