Dawn Freeman has made it her life’s mission to assist those returning home post-incarceration by ensuring that they have access to the tools and resources they need in order to get their lives on track.
But Freeman isn’t merely being benevolent, this is something she has lived and experienced in different ways.
“I’m a directly-impacted woman,” Freeman told ESSENCE, recounting how at a young age she had her run-ins with juvenile detention centers and group homes. By the time Freeman was in her early twenties, she got caught up in a road rage incident and was charged with a felony and two misdemeanors.
“By the grace of God, I was able to take a plea, so I wasn’t convicted of the felony. However, it’s still something that’s on my background, so I could never run,” she said. “I always have to go back and relive that experience and explain what happened at the time.”
In addition to her past experiences, Freeman has had several family members, including her own brother, who has been incarcerated, as well as several family members who have worked in law enforcement and corrections.
This background, she says, gives her a unique perspective of the criminal justice ills and recidivism that we are currently battling with as a country. Freeman is perfectly poised to help battle that as the CEO of Securus Foundation, a nonprofit that dedicates itself to helping individuals restart their lives once they have served their time.
The foundation, which is mainly funded by Securus Technologies, a prison communications firm, is Freeman’s brainchild. She was working with Securus Technologies for over a decade when she approached officials with the idea of creating the Foundation.
Since the foundation was incorporated in the summer of 2017, Freeman has been working on projects and campaigns to help serve a community that she holds very near and dear.
Recently, the Securus Foundation launched a new platform, the Exodus Planner, working to bridge the gap between corrections, parole and probation, and community partners.
The idea is to get these entities, from the jails or prisons to the community centers to come together and share information to help empower the individual looking for assistance. Typically, Freeman explained, a returning citizen might feel as if they’re being assessed over and over again for certain benefits or opportunities as they approach different community partners. In the same breath, those community partners may not be privy to the programming that an individual would have had access to while serving their time.
“The Exodus Planner is designed to specifically, not only empower someone who is directly impacted by the system and looking for services, but to also ensure that probation officers, parole officers [and] case managers have insight into the programs and services that are available in the community so that they can more adequately help someone and really guide them,” Freeman explained.
It combines two of Freeman’s passions, technology and prison reform, or more specifically, the reduction of recidivism through the use of technology.
Another big win for Securus last year was the launching of its REAL (Reaching Self-Awareness, Empowerment, Accountability, and Legacy) workshops.
“In [these] workshops, we engage and employ formerly incarcerated people. Everyone on our team has been impacted by the justice system in one way or another, whether it’s a child of someone who has been incarcerated, or a mother with incarcerated sons, someone who has worked in corrections, or people that are previously or formerly incarcerated and have come home and led successful lives for an extended period of time,” Freeman explained.
The workshops are used as a way to encourage those just returning to take ownership of their lives in a way that is more meaningful, as they’re not just hearing from someone who has never faced the same trials as they have, Freeman added.
“We really encourage them and show them it’s not just us telling you something that we haven’t done. We are a living, breathing example that it is possible and that there are support systems out here and people that do care if you make the appropriate effort,” she said. “That’s really one of our main goals, especially for 2020. It’s really been more of these REAL workshops to encourage individuals to really have a solid plan, what we call a life plan, or an exodus plan, for themselves and for their families, because they’re creating a legacy whether they realize it or not and they really have the control over what that legacy looks like.”
These are the kind of connections that Freeman is focusing on making through the Securus Foundation – between agencies, centers and people, and simply between people themselves.
However, if the name “Securus” sounds vaguely familiar, and if you’ve been keeping up with prison reform news, it would come as no surprise that the namesake of the foundation, and its main funder Securus Technologies has faced increasing scrutiny for the cost phone calls within jails and prisons.
Securus Technologies is one of the two companies (Global Tel Link being the other) that dominate the prison telecommunications industry, serving more than 3,400 correction facilities across the United States as NBC News notes. The cost of a phone call can vary across states, from $1.65 for a 15-minute call within Washington, while a similar call in Kentucky cost $5.70.
The cost of speaking to family members, those who live this have claimed in other news reports, have made it difficult for families to keep in touch with relatives who are serving time, and also add more pressure on already struggling families, who may not be able to keep on topping up their loved ones’ accounts. It also, of course, impacts the person serving time, as family support is often touted as crucial in decreasing recidivism.
The conversation has even made its way to Congress, with Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and five other senators introducing a bill demanding “just and reasonable charges” for intrastate and interstate calling, and actually opening up space for the Federal Communications Commission to regulate what Duckworth has called “predatory pricing,” NBC notes.
So how does Freeman deal with this? This is a question, she acknowledges, that she gets a lot.
She pointed out that Securus Technology does not own the foundation in any way, shape or form, even in being its main funder.
There is, also, of course, the fact that she has a bit more insider knowledge of how contracting and the laws surrounding the issue works.
“Even though the perception…exists out there that Securus Technologies is making all of these billions of dollars off of family members, the reality of it is that’s not a true statement. There are revenues, but there is also commissions that go back to county and state agencies in accordance to contracts that they put out,” Freeman explained. “They put out bids for that. Securus [Technologies] receives and processes it, but then they return the money to the state or the country agency, and that’s not unique to Securus. That happens to every other phone vendor or provider in this space.”
This is a point that Freeman says she likes to use to educate individuals, even though the foundation has nothing to do with the performance of Securus Technologies or its phone accounts.
“Whether it’s Securus or any other company, if you wanted to see change – and I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be change – going to Securus for that change is not going to make that change happen,” she added. “Those decisions are made through the laws and processes at the federal level and at the state level and at the county level.”
As for why the foundation took on the name “Securus,” well, that was a conscious, business decision made, driven by the fact that “if the foundation was called the Dawn Freeman Foundation nobody would pay it any attention.”
“There is value from my perspective in having the name association and I have to take the good and the bad that comes with that,” she added. “I don’t shy away from it because it gives me an opportunity, again, to educate the general public and it gives the Foundation a way to be invited to the table and have the conversation.”
Phones, Freeman emphasized, have nothing to do with the foundation’s core mission. Rehabilitation and connection do, and to that end, what she is working to build and encourage is “total community collaboration and engagement.” That, and showing people that the community she is trying to serve, are not only “offenders, convicts or inmates.”
“The message and vision that I have for the Foundation is that ultimately no one in our society sees people who have been impacted by the justice system as a throw-away,” Freeman said, giving a nod to the newest campaign the Foundation is planning, dubbed the “Language Matter’s Campaign,” which aims to change the way we speak about those who have been involved in the criminal justice system, especially upon their return.
“I don’t see my family members or myself as a throwaway. I started off pretty rough in my earlier years, but fast forward 30 years later, I’m successful by my own standards. I have very bright and intelligent children that are going to school and going to college,” she added. “If I can do that, I know that [others] can do that, and a lot of my success I contribute to having a plan and having opportunities to put that plan into motion. That’s my vision for all of those that we touched through the Securus Foundation.”