3 Ways Entrepreneurs Are Tackling The Prison Problem

Washington may have decided private companies aren’t right for running prisons, but numerous entrepreneurs are demonstrating daily how the private sector is uniquely equipped to help former inmates stay out of confinement.

Capitalizing on their ability and passion to meet unmet needs in the marketplace, these entrepreneurs are starting new programs, initiatives and businesses aimed at helping former inmates earn a living. It’s a growing societal need, considering that each year, the number of ex-offenders released from state and federal prisons could fill a city roughly the size of Boston or Memphis,  and many of those 650,000 former inmates have no money, no job and no place to live.

Former inmates are at high risk for going back behind bars; statistics show that about three-fourths of state prisoners were arrested for a new crime within five years, and numbers for federal inmates aren’t much better. This, despite the fact that state and federal governments already spend millions trying to reduce recidivism. Federal grants alone top $50 million, and several jurisdictions have passed laws restricting employers in their screening or consideration of criminal pasts during the hiring process. Still, some surveys find that up to three quarters of ex-offenders are jobless up to a year after release  and less than half are working full time five years after their release.

Entrepreneurs’ ability to move quickly, adapt when they encounter obstacles and persist even when people tell them they’ll fail means they can often succeed when other institutions are struggling. Here are three ways entrepreneurs are helping former inmates stay out of prison:

They’re teaching former inmates how to start their own businesses. Defy Ventures puts former inmates through a two-month training program, and those who survive are admitted to a 12-month entrepreneurship training program where they can also compete for startup grants. The program’s website boasts a 3 percent recidivism rate and more than 150 startups that have employed more than 350 people. Says founder and former venture capitalist Catherine Hoke, “Entrepreneurship can be a great equalizer. Anyone can choose to become an entrepreneur despite his or her history, skin color, or economic status.”

Inmates to Entrepreneurs provides educational seminars on entrepreneurship, online resources and group-based support to help former inmates start low-capital businesses. Entrepreneur Brian Hamilton, chairman of Sageworks, a financial information company, started the program by leading hour-long entrepreneurship courses at correctional facilities and in the community. Now he works with three directors of the not-for-profit who are former inmates and successful entrepreneurs themselves to cultivate mentors and provide resources for people who have been in prison. “Entrepreneurship has been shown throughout history as a way for disadvantaged people – whether immigrants or minorities or former inmates – to rise above their socioeconomic position and provide for their own needs,” Hamilton says.

They’re giving former inmates jobs. Numerous entrepreneurs are using their businesses to provide employment for former inmates. Deno Andrews hires people with criminal records at his Oak Park, Illinois, hot dog joint called Felony Franks, which features items such as the Misdemeanor Wiener and the Big House Beef sandwich. He also runs a not-for-profit foundation that provides those employees with financial literacy training and case management for housing and other needs that come with being a former inmate. “We wanted to show the world that ex-offenders can not only be great in the workplace, but they can effectively manage a really professional operation that serves gourmet fast food,” Andrews says.

Another entrepreneur hiring former inmates is Coss Marte, who himself served 7 years in prison after getting caught running a drug empire he said turned over $2 million a year. After losing 70 pounds by working out in his 9 x 6 prison cell, Marte developed a prison-style workout he and other former inmates offer in the New York ConBody gym. In addition to employing five former inmates as trainers, he is looking to add live streaming workouts and a mobile workout bus later this year as he meets strong demand for classes.

They’re giving former inmates a chance. This spring, 19 major companies announced that they are committed to making changes to reduce barriers to jobs for people with criminal records. The firms included some companies (Facebook, Starbucks and Koch Industries) led by famous entrepreneurs, as well as other firms with long histories of providing thousands of jobs (American Airlines, The Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, Georgia Pacific, Unilever). Each company promised to delay asking job applicants about their criminal histories until later in the hiring process, and they’re training staff to make fair decisions on applicants with criminal records, among other things.