Recidivism is a big problem in the U.S. Research shows that, within three years of their release, two out of three formerly incarcerated people are rearrested and more than 50% are incarcerated again. In New York, 53% of formerly incarcerated inmates are rearrested within three years.
Since finding steady, gainful employment is difficult for this population, such statistics shouldn’t be that surprising.
With that in mind, Kylie Jiwon Hwang, a PhD student in management at Columbia Business School, is about to publish a dissertation on incarceration and entrepreneurship, working with Damon Phillips, the Lambert Family Professor of Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School. One noteworthy finding: Formerly incarcerated individuals are more likely to become entrepreneurs than non-incarcerated folks. “They have difficulty finding employment,” she says. “Entrepreneurship is a way to find work,”
There are organizations trying to address the issue. Such groups as Defy Ventures and Inmates to Entrepreneurs teach entrepreneurial skills to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. Columbia Business Schools’ The Tamer Center for Social Enterprise, MBAs teach business skills to currently incarcerated inmates.
Some states make it difficult for returning citizens to get many occupational licenses. In Florida, for example, individuals incarcerated for certain felony offenses are disqualified for 15 years from securing many licenses; there’s a seven-year disqualifying period for other offenses. Plus, licensing boards can deny licensing applications based on an assessment of an individual’s character.
Also, says Hwang, for those formerly incarcerated people who do find regular employment, the pay usually is low, with little to no room or advancement. Nationally, those who manage to find employment have a median annual income of $10,000, according to the Brookings Institution.
Hwang emphasizes this entrepreneurial choice generally isn’t because they have a burning desire to start their own business. Typically, they have few other legal options. That is, in the face of repeated job denials, Hwang found in the course of multiple interviews with formerly incarcerated inmates, “They decide that, if they’re not going to make it in the employment market, they’re going to do it on their own.”
More Entrepreneurship, Reduced Recidivism
Hwang’s research, which isn’t completely finalized, found that formerly incarcerated individuals are 45% more likely to become entrepreneurs compared to similar non-formerly incarcerated individuals.
Plus, while results are preliminary, Hwang found that the recidivism rate is lower for formerly incarcerated individuals who start their own businesses. She conjectures that’s because entrepreneurship provides not only a living wage, but also, “It adds a layer of stability to their lives, a sense of commitment,” she says.
Typically, according to Hwang, the formerly incarcerated launch businesses in such service sectors as cleaning, landscaping or fitness that don’t require a big up-front capital infusion or sophisticated tech skills.
Case in point is Coss Marte. In 2016, when he couldn’t find a job after being released from prison for selling drugs, he launched CONBODY. That New York City-based fitness company uses exercise principles he relied on to develop his own workout regimen while he was incarcerated. Now, he hires trainers who also are formerly incarcerated.
Hwang cautions that entrepreneurship isn’t a panacea. Just like the rest of the population, not all formerly incarcerated people are cut out to run their own businesses and not all startups succeed. She hopes to conduct further study looking into the factors that typically lead formerly incarcerated people to become successful entrepreneurs.
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