Prisoner Reentry and Entrepreneurship
Above: “Stringer’s ‘Product’ Meeting” — scene from “The Wire”
David Frum, guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan, linked yesterday to an article at Hip-Hop Republican entitled “A Conservative Perspective on Former Inmate Re-entry,” by Vanessa Jean Louis:
Most of the aid that offenders receive are through public funds from the federal government and philanthropic organizations which donate monies to non-profits and state agencies to help defray re-entry costs. Ex-convicts are typically placed into low-wage jobs and often quit due to the patience required for delayed gratification through legal work and/or lack of familial support.
While public-private dollars are spent on employability skills and other social skills needed to rehabilitate them into productive civilian life, not enough emphasis is placed on entrepreneurship skills (self-employment). Unbeknownst to many of them, convicts who enter the penal system for dealing drugs procure many transferable business skills. By proxy they learn concepts such as: monopoly, market competition, oligopoly, marketing, re-investment, and dividend payments. In order to reduce recidivism, emphases should be placed on ex-convicts channeling those same skills towards legal activities.
I don’t know that I share what I take to be this writer’s high esteem for the unfettered free market, but I do appreciate her point that low-wage menial labor may not be the best fit for every at-risk youth or ex-inmate. At one end of the spectrum, many prisoners are lacking in very basic skills (I can’t find more up-to-date data offhand, but in the mid-1990s, 30% of California inmates were only “marginally literate” — PDF p. 5). At the other end, there are also prisoners and ex-prisoners who might be interested in more sophisticated educational and vocational programs than are generally available to them. Intuitively, this would seem to be especially true of former gang leaders and black market entrepreneurs — the gangster-who-missed-his-calling-as-a-CEO (and its close cousin, the suburban-parent-who-belatedly-finds-his/her-calling-as-a-drug-dealer) may be a TV archetype akin to the gold-hearted-hooker but it’s certainly true that the drug trade is a multibillion dollar industry.
John Seabrook had an interesting article in the New Yorker last year on John Jay professor David Kennedy‘s Ceasefire program, which works to reduce urban gang violence. Based on the finding that a small number of hardened criminals commit a disproportionate number of serious violent crimes, the program goes into a city and identifies high-risk gang members. The police and various other law enforcement officials then call a meeting with these individuals and inform them that they’re responsible for ending shootings in their area and that, if they don’t, they and the entire gang will be swiftly punished. The program also offers job training and “life coaching” for those who want it. Kennedy’s model seems to have yielded some notable successes, especially in High Point, N.C., though, as the article explains in detail, it has not been so successful everywhere and some scholars question whether there’s any empirical data to support it.
But I was most interested in this passage towards the end of the article (unfortunately the full article is behind a paywall to non-subscribers):
Dante Ingram … lost his job in phone sales in December, 2008, when he was arrested in a domestic-violence incident and spend eighteen days in jail and twenty days under house arrest. After that, C.I.R.V. [the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Street Violence, the name of that city's Ceasefire coalition] managed to place him in another job, in the receiving department of a warehouse. Ingram was unable to hold that position, either, and was considering returning to the gang. Despite Ingram’s difficulties, Stan Ross, who was impressed by his determination to change his life, offered him a job as a C.I.R.V. street worker. “I love it,” Ingram said of his work. So far, he had found jobs for two other men, one in a gas station and one as a janitor. Among his new duties is making sure that these men get to work on time, and he sometimes takes them and picks them up himself. “A lot of these guys have never had a job before,” Ingram said.
Dante Ingram is introduced earlier in the article as a 29-year-old who had been selling drugs since he was 15, and three years before had suffered a federal felony conviction, his first, for possessing “a large amount of marijuana and several guns.” Unfortunately the article doesn’t provide any more detail about Ingram than that, but just based on his relatively light criminal record and his age, it doesn’t sound like he was merely a street dealer. It doesn’t surprise me that someone with over 10 years of, shall we say, middle-management sales experience would not be happy or successful in a bottom-rung telemarketing or warehouse job. It also doesn’t surprise me that he’s happier in more of an entrepreneurial, supervisory role, where he’s connecting other people with each other, and it’s encouraging that he finally found something closer to that — but tellingly, only as a last resort and thanks to a vote of confidence that not every ex-prisoner gets. I suspect such jobs are few and far between in most reentry initiatives, which (perhaps rightly, given the need) tend to focus more on basic skills.
The problem strikes me as somewhat analogous to that in public education, where you have a lot of low-performing kids with very basic needs that aren’t being met on the one hand, but also some number of potentially high-performing kids whose skills are not being recognized and cultivated on the other. And just as in the public education context, given the magnitude of both problems it’s hard to know what the right balance would be in terms of allocating resources. But maybe part of the answer is for community-based reentry initiatives and job training organizations to look no further than the most highly skilled among their own client base when it’s time to hire managers and supervisors.