Breaking the Cycle: Entrepreneurship in Prison
Credit: U.Va.’s Darden School of Business
Imagine you’re in prison. Your release date is quickly approaching. But you’re a high-school dropout with few job skills. Even if you took classes on the inside and learned how to weld or hang drywall—you are an ex-con. Who will hire you? How are you going to survive in the worst economy in decades?
In 2013, nearly 700,000 inmates will be released from state and federal prisons in the United States. Many dread the day they will regain freedom. Unable to find legitimate employment, many resort to a life of crime and quickly return behind bars. According to the Justice Department, more than 60% of prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release.
“The number one challenge ex-offenders face is the scarlet letter on their chest,” says Greg Fairchild, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “That’s the first and only thing many people will see.” Fairchild, who teaches courses in strategic management and entrepreneurship at Darden, has made it his mission to help inmates overcome significant barriers to reentering society.
In 2011, Fairchild and his wife, Tierney Temple Fairchild, launched a pilotMBA-style program in two correctional facilities in Virginia to teach convicted felons how to start their own businesses upon release. The inmates are taught using a case method, led by Fairchild and second-year Darden students.
The benefits of the program go beyond learning basic business skills. Entrepreneurship education offers exactly what those who hope to start anew need the most: a new mind-set. “At its root, entrepreneurship is about recognizing that there’s a problem and finding some way to add value to someone else,” Fairchild says. In the program, participants learn to recognize the value in themselves and create value for others. The classroom experience helps them to trust one another. Many develop a powerful bond with their fellow classmates. “The prisoners change—they start supporting each other,” Fairchild says.
But prisoners are not the only ones who change. Many business students who volunteer in Fairchild’s program say their own preconceptions about convicted felons are stripped away the first time they teach a class. “I have a dozen MBA students who ask prisoners to do the financial analysis of breakeven, they see them do it—they see how serious they are—and they change their perception,” Fairchild says.
“If you had asked me whether I’d have hired someone with a criminal record last year, I probably would have said ‘no,’” says Mark Lund, Darden MBA ’12, who taught in Fairchild’s program last year. “This experience has opened my eyes to the potential people have when they truly commit to turning their lives around.”
To have a real shot at a productive life on the outside, former prisoners need job skills and a positive framework to recognize their own potential. But they also need people willing to give them a chance. Prison entrepreneurship programs hold promise for both halves of the solution.