Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Entrepreneurship and Prison Re-entry

Harold Dean Trulear


April 1, 2011
by Harold Dean Trulear

Ten years ago, in 2001, President George W. Bush signed an executive order creating the Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives. Atop his agenda for this office was the ability of religious and community organizations to partner with government to help those in situations and communities of distress, notably those impacted by crime and incarceration. Its mission reflected research and practice demonstrating the potential of faith based organizations to provide social capital in distressed areas.

The issues of crime, incarceration and criminal justice were addressed through initiatives such as the establishment of federal support for mentoring children of prisoners, job training for those returning from incarceration, and the bipartisan effort to pass the Second Chance Act, appropriating federal dollars for criminal justice agencies, faith based non-profits, and community organizations to provide services and conduct systems reforms that, based on best practices and research, would both reduce recidivism and reintegrate men and women returning from incarceration into meaningful, productive citizenship.

The Obama administration has pledged to tackle these issues through the lens of economic recovery. For those returning from incarceration, the challenge of employment—which, along with housing and social support networks, has been shown to be a critical component of successful reentry and reintegration—looms large, especially given the current employment crisis in America.

Recent initiatives in the Departments of Labor and Justice are providing federal support for employment mentoring and green job training. These initiatives acknowledge both the need for stable work placements as a dimension of successful reentry as well as the role of faith based and community organizations in supporting such efforts.  Yet, the stigma of incarceration continues to serve as a significant barrier to employing those “coming home” (over 600,000 annually from federal and state prisons) and is exacerbated by an already stressed job market.

In response efforts have grown to press entrepreneurship as a complementary solution to finding work for those with criminal pasts.  The logic goes that if few will hire a “returning citizen,” then support should simultaneously be offered for entrepreneurial efforts whereby they can be self employed.  Having pushed this approach for nearly 20 years, Matthew Sonfeld traced the development of reentry and entrepreneurship for the Research Review of the Small Business Institute in 2008. Among other things, he cited an “empirical testing of the entrepreneurial propensity of prison inmates…[using a]  projective testing instrument which has been shown to validly measure motivational factors associated with entrepreneurial success.”  Not surprisingly for a population whose membership includes those who had been entrepreneurs in a “street economy,” the average score surpassed many in the “legitimate” business community. 

This does not surprise Small-Businessman-of-the-Year-turned-Pastor Keith Davis, of poverty stricken Camden: “The instinctive quality present in every entrepreneur I’ve known is opportunism.  All entrepreneurs operate in this quality intuitively, it enables them to recognize a moneymaking opportunity and instinctively move with grace and skill to exploit it for profit!  Felons and Wall Street Titans alike share this quality.” Davis lobbies strongly in both the public and private sector for increased efforts to support entrepreneurship as an employment strategy for the formerly incarcerated. So, too does the research from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which, in their 2007 report Venturing Beyond the Gates, calls for building “relationships among and leveraging the expertise, resources and structure of microenterprise programs, reentry programs, correctional agencies and other partners.” Michael Brewer’s text Thinking Outside the Blox offers strategies for entrepreneurship in 20 areas of microenterprise. 

Davis, whose Koinonia Family Life Center is among a number of faith based and community agencies investing in this promise concludes that “if we would offer Ex-Offenders very specific training skills in balancing the moral and ethical factors in conducting business, we could very well launch a new era in business expansion – right from our prison systems in America.  Some of our most brilliant entrepreneurs are unfortunately in the prison system of America.” Those committed to economic recovery, public safety, restorative justice, and community development ought to take note.

 —Harold Dean Trulear is the Director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Project at the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation and Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University School of Divinity.







“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”