From Prisoner to Entrepreneur

From Prisoner to Entrepreneur
Jeremy Papasso/Boulder Daily Camera via AP

Every year, over 2,000 men and women make the journey home from federal prison and return to the streets of our nation’s capital. For ex-convicts, the transition back to everyday life is often bleak. These “returned citizens” exit the prison gates only to be faced with an equally daunting reality: finding jobs, housing, securing health insurance, and paying thousands in childcare payments accrued while in prison.

Finding employment is by far the most difficult — and critical — part of the reentry process for returned citizens. But survey data suggests that over half of those released from prison are unemployed for up to a year after being released. 

These hurdles lead many back to the bad habits and lifestyles that sent them to prison in the first place. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately 40 percent of all those released from prison will be rearrested in their first year out, over two-thirds within three years. and over three-quarters within five years.

Those returned citizens who do find gainful employment are less likely to return to prison. But, according to a 2015 report, 76 percent of former inmates expressed that finding work upon release is “very difficult” or “nearly impossible.”

Yet while many of the formerly incarcerated may be unemployed, they are not unemployable.

Several new state and local programs are aimed at addressing this state of affairs. An in-prison program in Texas, a newly minted in-prison college program outside Baltimore, a New-York based nonprofit organization, and a university-based program in San Quentin — these programs are helping the formerly incarcerated around the country realize their potential by harnessing their entrepreneurial spirit to create economic opportunities for themselves and their families.

One D.C. program is a good example.

In early 2016, leaders in the D.C. Mayor's Office and the Department of Small and Local Business Development came up with a visionary concept, the Aspire to Entrepreneurship program, to help the formerly incarcerated. And last month, we visited the nonprofit organization, Changing Perceptions, which has partnered with the D.C. government to make this vision a reality.

The six-month Changing Perceptions program enables the formerly incarcerated to rejoin the workforce by creating their own businesses. Participants are taught entrepreneurship and the essentials for business success, including how to obtain business licenses and access capital. Current participants have started or are starting businesses in towing, heating and ventilation, accounting, cosmetology, and pest control.

But while entrepreneurship is a way around the many hurdles returned citizens face upon release, challenges remain.

For example, securing housing — another predictor of successful reentry for returned citizens — remains difficult for the formerly incarcerated. Since landlords can still ask about someone’s criminal history on rental applications, many are barred from affordable living arrangements. They end up in shelters or, worse, homeless.

The D.C. program also helps participants overcome obstacles to being certified or getting work licenses. The years of experience, say, as a barber, beautician, plumber, or technician, gained while incarcerated, often do not count toward licensure or certification upon release. 

Lawmakers should remove these roadblocks for the formerly incarcerated so they can return to work and lead productive lives upon release. Georgia is a good model here. The Peach State now provides former inmates with certificates for work and training programs completed while in prison. To date, the state has graduated 150 welders from prisons; all had job offers upon their return home. In 2016, 4,298 on-the-job training and technical certifications were awarded to Georgia prisoners.

D.C.’s effort to help former inmates make a more seamless transition is a good example for the rest of the country. Programs like Changing Perceptions should be supported, evaluated, and, if effective, replicated.

American city officials must play larger roles in supporting individuals who have been in prison to become self-reliant and capable of achieving their dreams. It’s fitting that this important national conversation should start — and, perhaps, end — in Washington, D.C. Through entrepreneurship, public policy, and strategic partnerships, the nation’s capital can play a leading role in reducing recidivism and increasing opportunities for those seeking a second chance in life. 

Gerard Robinson is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where Elizabeth English is a researcher. Mr. Robinson is moderating an all-day conference with AEI and University of Baltimore on December 8, 2016: "Opportunity and reentry: Creating pathways for returning citizens in Maryland and beyond."

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