Teaching in Jail

I’ve just spent a remarkable two months teaching a group of potential new business owners in our region what they need to succeed. They were hard-working and engaged. They showed the kind of passion that develops when failure truly isn’t an option. They were also in jail.

I taught entrepreneurship as part of Mecklenburg County Jail’s adult education program. The pilot course was designed to help inmates start small, closely held businesses or learn how to contribute to one. The program will be expanded, and I’d like anyone with business skills to consider joining me as a teacher.

Let’s start with the obvious concerns. As soon as I mentioned my plan to volunteer, my family began worrying about my safety. Peers in the community asked, “Doesn’t this just teach criminals to be better criminals?”

It’s a fair question, but the answer is clear. Inmates who participate in educational programs, from food service to creative writing, are much less likely to return to prison once free, according to several studies. Education programs reduce the cost of incarceration overall and increase prisoners’ odds of finding employment. By helping inmates find ways to make a living legally, we make our community safer.

The pilot program was organized by Cathy Anderson, one of my former professors in Queens University’s MBA program. On the first day, I met two other volunteers in the lobby at the jail. We checked into security, then were ushered through multiple check points, up an elevator, and into a classroom to meet our anxious students.

I was the first to speak. After a brief introduction, I asked why they were here to learn about entrepreneurship. The overwhelming consensus was they didn’t have options. These guys admitted they had made mistakes. They knew what was waiting for them upon their release – nothing. With the stigma of felony convictions on their records, if they could get a job, it would be a low-paying job. They said they wanted a way to support their families. They wanted a way to be judged not on their past, but how they can contribute as a small business owner.

I was one of about eight instructors. The organizer had chosen each of us based on subject matter expertise. I taught idea generation, competitive advantage, and what the difference is in a lifestyle business versus a high-tech, high-growth business. Others taught ethics, sales and marketing, basic accounting, and legal structures for businesses. The curriculum is abbreviated, but is enough to prompt someone’s interest in entrepreneurship. The classroom hours and study time assigned to students is roughly 80 to 100 hours over the course of the class.

As the program progressed, these guys really bought in. They were diligent. I was inspired by their drive. They can now go back into society with an enlightened sense of purpose. While I don’t expect a 100% success rate, I believe some will leave the corrections system forever because they have learned they can in fact make something great when they are released. Following their release, we refer inmates to other organizations so they can continue their education.

I’ll add that I never felt unsafe while teaching. The jail is a very safe place for volunteers and visitors. The inmates selected to participate in this program had proven themselves with good behaviors.

I certainly came out of the program with a different perspective than I had going in. I began to think of all the local entrepreneurial ventures I meet in the community. The failure rate for startups is high everywhere, and especially in Charlotte. Many more might make it as thriving companies if their leaders went in believing they didn’t have any other options but to succeed.

At first I volunteered because I was intrigued. But I’ll continue because it’s a good investment of time and resources. It helps the local economy, it helps create jobs, and it reduces our burden as taxpayers when the recidivism rates are lowered. Join me, and I promise you’ll get more from it than you put in.

Published Print Edition, Charlotte Business Journal, 5-8-2015

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