Teaching Entrepreneurship, Coding Skills May Be the Way Out Of the Prison Cycle

The United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world — in a country that holds about 5 percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of the world’s inmates.

And unfortunately, while the instant search of the digital age has made most people’s lives easier, for the formerly-incarcerated trying to get back on their feet, it can be a thorn in their side. It’s all too easy, when looking at a job candidate, to run a quick Google search and gain access to their entire life’s history. The ex-offender label is a stigma that can follow these individuals their whole lives, leading to unemployment rates as high as 70 percent.

“The prison problem now, as a social problem, is substantially worse than it was in the ’60’s. There’s more people in prison now, there’s more of the population in prison, and because of society’s structure, there’s more discrimination against these people,” explains Brian Hamilton, founder of the North Carolina-based social justice organization Inmates to Entrepreneurs.

Hamilton isn’t your typical non-profit leader. The Duke MBA is a successful entrepreneur himself, having built software company Sageworks into a 400-person operation and sold it to Accel-KKR earlier this year.

But instead of pursuing a new for-profit company, Hamilton is all in on the venture he started as an unstructured side project a decade ago.

After Hamilton graduated from business school, he worked for the U.S. Small Business Administration helping minority-owned small businesses. In this capacity, he connected with a minister who worked in Raleigh-Durham area prison systems, and began to accompany him on visits.

“I would tag along to these prisons and talk to some of the guys during the breaks about their lives — what are you going to do when you get out? One time in particular I remember this guy said, well I want to go get a job, and I remember thinking to myself, wow, that’s a big ask. It’s hard enough in the first place to get a job, but never mind if you’ve got some type of conviction on your record,” says Hamilton.

The idea began to percolate then, as Hamilton continued visiting prisons and informally mentoring or assisting some of the individuals he met. He even taught courses at the prisons, covering all the basics of launching a low-capital small business — legal structure, sales, marketing and more.

He spoke with thousands of inmates, but six years ago, Hamilton realized that “just going to the prisons and teaching courses has holes.” He decided to formalize the program, funding Inmates to Entrepreneurs through his own earnings from Sageworks (it is now a formal foundation funded through donors) and putting an entire mentorship and education program into place.

Helping former inmates start their own businesses
Anyone who has been charged with a crime — even if they didn’t spend time in jail — can take advantage of Inmates to Entrepreneurs’ programs. Their in-person eight-week course is offered offered three times a year in Raleigh, Wilmington, Greensboro and Charlotte, North Carolina. They also have a host of online resources for those who can’t make it to the in-person class.

To develop the program, Hamilton says they studied the successful mentorship model of Alcoholics Anonymous. Each program participant gets a paired mentor, all of whom are entrepreneurs, many of whom have served time as well. Often, the graduates come back as mentors.

Hamilton says that about 300 have gone through the program, and they see a 30-50 percent graduation rate — in order to graduate, the individual has to actually start their business.

Hamilton hopes that the model can be a catalyst to reduce the high recidivism rates that plague the U.S. Former inmates are more likely to hire those that have been charged with crimes, breaking that unemployment cycle that leads to 70 percent of crimes committed by prior offenders.

“You always want to think of things as getting better, but I don’t think people realize that the prison issue is looming larger,” he says.

The organization is expanding fast, with plans to be nationwide in the next two years. First on the list? Likely Atlanta, followed by Washington D.C.

“I’ve never been a part of anything that has taken off so quickly,” says Hamilton. “It’s been amazing.”

Coding replacing incarceration
So what about the former inmates who don’t have the entrepreneurship bug? Is there another outlet for employment to break those recidivism cycles?

Hannah Hill, educated as a theologist and a chaplain, thinks the answer lies in technology; specifically, coding. She taught herself to code in order to build a website for a non-profit, and was surprised to find it was much more approachable than she had thought.

“I realized that I don’t like coding necessarily, but I could have gotten a job in it if I wanted it, and that’s without any real degree or experience. So if I could do that, who else could do it?” says Hill.

Hill had planned to go into federal prison chaplaincy, but found herself graduating in the midst of a government hiring freeze. Her free time led her to think about other ways she could help inmates ensure they wouldn’t return to prison.

Enter Code Out, an Atlanta-based non-profit that will teach incarcerated women coding skills while they’re still in prison, and then ensure they have secured high-paying technical jobs when they get out.

Hill says, when she was researching to see if her idea actually had legs, she came across a California-based program with the same concept that had seen unprecedented success. Not a single one of their graduated inmates had returned to prison.

“In my mind I was like, if they can do that in San Quentin, which is the most violent, highest recidivism rate of any prison in the country, I can do that with women in Georgia. No brainer.”

Hill partnered with a Georgia Tech computer science professor to come up with the material for the class, which will pair eight months of online learning with in-class instruction. The first class of six women in a local transitional center kicks off this month.

They’ve also found their first employer partner, a systems technology marketing firm based in Buckhead. When the women complete the course and finish their sentence, they will have a guaranteed coding job with benefits, an office to go to every day, and a way to sustain a transition out of incarceration.

“These jobs are high-wage, low-stress jobs compared to something like housekeeping or really low-wage jobs. People who do these jobs are able to stick with them, so their chances of going back to jail because they have no money is dramatically reduced,” says Hill.

“We as an organization firmly believe that these women are serving their time and should not continue to be punished after they get out,” she says. “These are women, these are people, that simply need a break.”