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Case study: How can prison inmates prepare for success?

The big idea: A sizable group of potential workers — former prison inmates — faces challenges in securing employment. Can they overcome the stigma of past errors and skill deficits?

The scenario: John is looking forward to returning to his hometown in April. He worries that while he’s been away, he may have fallen out of step with the technical and real-world skills employers demand. He would like an entry-level job in an athletic apparel store; his long-term goal is to own a retail store.

Over the past 18 months, he’s made great changes in his attitude and outlook. He has picked up important technical classes and worked on his “soft skills” — public speaking and interviewing. John sees his first job as a path to his new career, his redemption. He knows there is another conversation to prepare for: Explaining his felony conviction for drug distribution, and why his past doesn’t define or determine his future.

About 566,000 ex-offenders leave prison and enter parole each year. An estimated 95 percent of the 2.3 million others in prison will eventually return to society. Once released, probation officers will work with them to reintegrate into daily life, to find work and a stable home — not easy steps.

John recognizes that the people who hire entry-level workers worry about the risks of employee turnover, the risks of loss from theft and the comfort of co-workers or customers with any new employee. These uncertainties are balanced against real investments in training. John knows that adding a past crime can tip the balance away from hiring someone who is otherwise qualified. So how can he transition to productive employment and then, ultimately, as an employer, business owner and taxpayer?

The resolution: Nearly 1,600 ex-offenders reenter society each day. One of the primary factors influencing recidivism, or the return to prison, is an inability to find a job. In 2004, the nonprofit organization Prison Entrepreneurship Program in Texas pioneered a program to connect executives, MBA students and politicians with convicted felons to redirect them into legitimate enterprises. The entrepreneurship boot camp and reentry program have achieved impressive results. Three-year recidivism rates in Texas hover around 25 percent, but have dropped to 5 percent for graduates of the program.

The lesson: Turning prison inmates into entrepreneurs is possible. In 2011, at a Virginia correctional facility, the Darden School of Business launched an entrepreneurship program. It involves more than a dozen student volunteers, 25 case studies — and a belief in second chances and human potential.

— Gregory B. Fairchild

Fairchild is a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School.

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