Let’s Train Inmates for Success in the High-Tech Economy

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Getting a job is tough—especially for those just released from incarceration.

Many people lose their jobs while behind bars, and research demonstrates that felony convictions hurt an individual’s chances of finding employment — especially for job seekers who are black.

Even arrests for minor misdemeanor charges can negatively affect an employer’s decision to hire. This suggests that even if a person is found innocent or diverted from prosecution, negative financial repercussions may follow.

Some have touted work-release and training programs as an opportunity to increase individuals’ post-release employment opportunities, yet many of these programs have failed to truly embrace the lessons of the modern economy. The programs often send prisoners to work for companies that provide low-skilled, low-wage positions characterized by the kind of stagnant earning potential that makes it difficult for formerly incarcerated workers to ever achieve financial security.

Prison and jail programs can help address these problems by teaching incarcerated individuals how today’s technology makes it possible for them to build and thrive in their own careers once they are released. Partnerships with the free market may provide precisely such opportunities.

Building Prisoners’ Marketable Skills

For instance, jails and prisons could develop programs that use online platforms to give the incarcerated a chance to provide services on freelance projects. While inmate-produced goods are generally not allowed to be sold in the open market, these programs can instruct inmates on how to use technology to produce goods, and even how to start and manage a business, when they’re on the outside.

This will help inmates build marketable skills while serving time.

Local jails that traditionally lack programming and resources can still offer classes on entrepreneurship through seminars led by organizations such as Inmates to Entrepreneurs. They can also develop relationships with local business leaders seeking to volunteer.

Emily Mooney

Emily Mooney

Indeed, both pretrial detention centers and state prisons could offer similar programs, making time behind bars more productive for those who are incarcerated.

A current program in Texas is doing just that. More than 2,000 individuals have graduated from Texas’ Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) and started over 350 businesses, contributing millions of dollars to the local economy. Every single graduate of Texas’ PEP is employed or self-employed within 90 days after release, and almost all remain employed a year later.

These are employment statistics few, if any, correctional programs can claim — indeed, they represent levels of post-graduate employment many colleges and universities wish they could attain.

The return on investment for the community is just as significant. In terms of public safety, on average, 7 percent of graduates recidivate within three years of release, compared to an average of 23 percent of incarcerated Texas males over a similar period. And a 2018 report estimates that the program generates a 794 percent return for each dollar invested within a five-year period.

Indeed, the authors found that PEP saved Texas and the federal government approximately $4.3 million in 2017 alone.

If providing individuals with a second chance to establish financial security, contribute to a thriving economy and promote public safety aren’t reasons enough to invest in these programs, ensuring that victims of crime obtain justice certainly must be.

Incarcerated individuals relegated to low-wage employment after release are often unable to satisfy all of their financial obligations. It’s hard enough to pay rent and grocery bills when making minimum wage; expenses like child support and restitution may simply fall by the wayside.

Investing in Entrepreneurship

Providing released individuals with a better path toward higher earning capacity is the best way to ensure they can fully satisfy such responsibilities.

For all these reasons, policymakers can help incarcerated individuals, families, communities and victims by investing in inmates’ professional capital during incarceration.

Arthur Rizer

Arthur Rizer

Entrepreneurship has catapulted newly arrived immigrants, single mothers and high school dropouts from uncertain financial futures to steady employment; it can do the same for those exiting our local jails and prisons. Accordingly, we should prioritize investments in programs that provide returning women and men with the right skillsets to take advantage of our technology-driven economy.

With a few changes to work and training programs in jails and prisons, we can help those who are incarcerated shed their criminal label for a much more productive and positive one: successful entrepreneur.

Emily Mooney (@emilymmooney) is a policy associate for the R Street Institute’s Criminal Justice team. Arthur Rizer (@arthurrizer) is the Director of Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties at the Institute.

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