The second phase of the series, “Improving Lives From the Inside Out”, highlights former incarcerated individuals who transformed their lives with the help of Securus Technologies’ Lantern learning management and education platform in partnership with Ashland University. Lantern provides nearly 70 courses for incarcerated individuals to be able to achieve either a bachelor’s or associate’s degree.
Since its inception, this change-making technology has given over 150,000 incarcerated residents, the opportunity to get a university education to help prepare them for a successful reentry. There have been over 1,000,000 course enrollments since Lantern’s inception.
Part seven of the series focuses on Ben Castro who was released from the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center located in St. Gabriel, Louisiana in April 2018. He credits his Securus’ Lantern education, for helping him reach his success so quickly.
“I credit my degree for opening that door and giving me opportunity,” said Ben Castro. “Lantern disciplined my life,” he added.
Castro feels his Lantern curriculum was well balanced with courses like civics, business, math, trigonometry, English, biology, religion, philosophy and life skills. He received his associate’s degree in general studies.
Just two years after his release, he serves as the marketing director for Ideal Market in Metairie, Louisiana, which has eight locations in the state.
“Lantern was one of the best things that ever happened to me in my life. It gave me purpose and self-esteem. I have something, I can be proud of. Something that is real.”
Head of Human Resources Roberto Torres refers to Castro as a “fantastic guy” for several reasons.
“Ben is a person who helps with his day-to-day energy, which he brings here like a family, that the day in the future is better than the present,” said Torres. “He is disposed to help and listen. He is a guy about union and not about separation.”
Castro started his career as a DJ, where in his words, he lacked structure. He was determined to get on the right track for reentry and explains that Lantern gave him the discipline he was looking for. “I had a goal every day. I saw my daily accomplishments, my work assignments, and I had to allocate time. It was something I never had to do before. It helped me with my job and prepared me for real life,” Castro stated.
Castro was goal-driven from the first day of his release. His first job was washing dishes at a restaurant. He used his lunch break to search for better opportunities, and two jobs later, he says he applied for an opening at Ideal Market in the meat department. One glance at his resume, and he states the supervisor told him he was over-qualified and hired him as the store manager. Determined to succeed, he put his skills to work and credits what he learned through Lantern.
"I knew nothing about the grocery business. Through my education, I learned the importance of listening to people to see what their needs are as well as negotiating product, so everyone walks away from the table happy,” Castro stated.
Castro says it was also his hard work of keeping the store clean and good work ethic that got him the quick promotion from store manager to marketing director. However, he mentioned some unique ideas of introducing typical New Orleans cuisine to his grocery store that caters to the Latino market, which may have also helped him get that promotion since they were a big hit.
“We were missing the New Orleans factor; it was my idea to start boiling crawfish outside the store on Fridays. We have 80,000 cars that pass our intersection a day. Two months into the season, we order 60,000 pounds of crawfish,” Castro stated.
Then for Mardi Gras, he came up with the idea of putting a Latino twist on King Cakes by offering a Tres Leches variety. He says 18,000 units were ordered.
After he created those big ideas for new products, he was soon named the marketing director for the corporate chain. Castro thanks his Securus’ Lantern education for giving him the confidence to believe in himself and his dreams.
“Lantern was one of the best things that ever happened to me in my life. It gave me purpose and self-esteem. I have something, I can be proud of, something that is real,” he stated.
Paying it forward
Castro aspired not only for his success, but also saw an immediate need to help those around him. For his thesis of his degree, he started a nonprofit called Freedom Rides. He noticed much of the prison population was “driving dirty”, meaning driving a vehicle without a license. These individuals were then rearrested upon release for driving without a license. Freedom Rides raises funds so that they can pay off past fines, get driver’s licenses, and receive donated cars.
“Some people feel they’re worthless. I wanted to change that,” Castro concluded. “Lantern programs show you that you can be someone in life and accomplish something in life.”
COVID-19 has certainly given him the opportunity to take an important role. He serves as one of the grocery chain’s spokespersons informing communities about its free meal delivery to assisted living communities as well as a complimentary meal program for first responders and nurses in the New Orleans area who are in need. Ben not only spearheaded the COVID-19 community outreach programs, but the projects were his brainchild.
“He did a phenomenal job with that. Ben is a person that is well-intentioned and capable. He is caring for the community and wants to help others in need,” concluded Torres.