Prison to proprietorship: The path to real second chances

Today, the chairwoman of the House Small Business Committee announced bipartisan “Prison to Proprietorship Act” legislation. The bills would direct the Small Business Administration’s resource partners to provide entrepreneurship mentoring and training to federal prisoners, both in prison and post-release.

This legislation, if passed, could make a significant difference and provide returning citizens with a viable, legal option for earning a living if they cannot find jobs. I know these types of programs work because I started teaching entrepreneurship inside prisons more than 27 years ago.

I walked into a prison for the first time in my life in 1992. I was tagging along with my friend, Rev. Robert Harris (aka Rev), a Baptist minister who was counseling a group of inmates. Rev is the kind of person you simply want to be around so, when he asked me to come with him, I did not really think about it, and I just went.

After a break in the session, a person came up to me to say hi. I asked him what he was going to do upon release and he replied, “get a job.” This seemed reasonable enough to me, but in the back of my mind I wondered if this might be hard to achieve since he had a criminal record. That moment was the inception of Inmates to Entrepreneurs ( Soon after, Rev. Harris and I began teaching courses in prisons on how to start a small service business.

In that year, 1992, the national recidivism rate was approximately 60 percent. Last year, it was around 60 percent–not a terrific trend line. Over the past few years, it seems as if there is a real consensus among people (including those would not ordinarily get along) that reforming the criminal justice system is a good idea. Yet, today, despite the popularity of the topic (even Kim Kardashian is getting involved through her recent efforts to get people released from prison), the constraints remain stubbornly high for formerly incarcerated individuals. I sometimes worry that the movement is a fad that will lead to further exploitation of a group of people who already have enough problems.

We know that the vast majority of people in prison had severe adverse childhood experiences growing up that made their journeys materially harder than for many of us. When your father is beating your mother, it is probably hard to concentrate on school or to even have a “normal” view of the world. If drugs are all around your world, it is easier to start taking them. When you don’t have a good father to guide you as a young man, we know this makes it harder to stay on the right path. This is not to say that everyone in prison has had these types of formative experiences, but we know that statistically across the group they have.

Once out of prison, formerly incarcerated individuals face new constraints as well. Employers are routinely throwing out the applications of people who have a record. In North Carolina, returned citizen Don Brown submitted over 90 job applications upon release—not a single offer. So, he started his own business. Unfortunately, this is an exceptional outcome, not the average one.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The underlying promise of our system is that we will welcome returning citizens and not impede their ability to earn a living legally i.e., they will have a real “second chance.” If people don’t get meaningful work through employment or entrepreneurship, they will return to prison. This is why the proposed acts are a step in the right direction.

Brian Hamilton is the co-founder of Sageworks, the founder of Inmates to Entrepreneurs and the founder of the Brian Hamilton Foundation.