Teaching prisoners to start businesses can help them return to society

When people are released from prison back into society, they can find themselves in an unknown world for which they are ill-equipped. They need stability and security to get their lives back on track – yet often have nowhere to go. They also tend to lack basic literacy and numeracy, which makes it unlikely they will find work.

Prisoners attend various orientation programmes intended to help them with things like housing, finances, transport and employment. Surprisingly, however, there isn’t typically a programme in the UK to help them to become entrepreneurs.

In fact, ex-prisoners are well suited to setting up businesses. They tend to show many entrepreneurial traits, such as self-sufficiency, creativity and the capacity to take risks. They have the added incentive of not wanting to return to prison and have responded well to entrepreneurship programmes in places like the US.

Programmes in the US and UK

Across the US, the Inmates to Entrepreneurs programme offers many prisoners an eight-week course in which they are taught the basics of setting up a business through a combination of face-to-face and online provision.

Out of more than 100,000 people who have taken the programme, around 30% have gone on to start a business. With ex-prisoners around 41% more likely to become self-employed in the US compared to regular people, this programme clearly gives them some encouragement.

There have also been some smaller successful programmes in different parts of the US. For example, the Washington DC programme Aspire saw 45 out of 125 graduates starting a business in 2021-22.

Meanwhile the Texas-based Prison Entrepreneurship Programme, which has been running for almost two decades, was shown in a 2013 study to have reduced reoffending by around two-thirds, outperforming numerous other rehabilitation programmes in the state.

In the UK, around 80% of prisoners are interested in starting their own business – at least according to a 2016 report from the Centre for Entrepreneurs. That’s compared to about 40% of the general population. The Centre argues that ex-prisoners in the UK could be starting almost 11,000 businesses a year with the right support.

The untapped business potential could be high.

But the current provision is extremely limited. In London, Queen Mary University’s Project ReMAKE is an eight to 12-week programme that has been running for the past few years. It teaches the basic skills to around 15 ex-prisoners each year to become self-employed, and so far none of the graduates has reoffended.

More broadly, the Centre for Entrepreneurs calculates that a nationwide UK programme teaching entrepreneurial skills to prisoners might have a 14% reoffending rate, compared to the 46% norm. This was based mainly on the results of a charity called Startup, which taught entrepreneurialism to several thousand female ex-prisoners in the UK during the 2000s and 2010s.

Another previous entrepreneurship programme, this time by the Prince’s Trust, gives an indication of how successful such programmes can be. It was offered to a range of people including ex-prisoners in the mid-2010s in different parts of England. It found that 78% of businesses set up by ex-prisoners reached the two-year survival mark – similar to participants on the programme as a whole.

The Scottish situation

There are no entrepreneurship programmes targeted at ex-prisoners in Scotland, where I’m based. Scotland particularly needs such a programme, since it’s got very high imprisonment rates for men and women. The female prison population, which is just under 300, is among the highest in northern Europe.

In 2022, some researchers at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University delivered a three-day programme to a group of women in prison. It’s not yet clear to what extent the programme was successful. It might be that delivering such training in prison isn’t the best timing, since the recipients are potentially more likely to be in a better headspace once they are released and certain basic needs such as housing have been met. The three US programmes I mentioned earlier all provide training after prisoners have been released, with only the Texas programme also offering part of the course while recipients are still in prison.

To the same end, I recently received just under £100,000 from the Scottish government to launch a new pilot programme, again aimed at women. One of my most basic challenges is to make the notion of entrepreneurship attractive to these women. I aim to show them that it is not only about setting up a small business. Taking an entrepreneurship course can also help them to develop skills to make them employable and reach their potential, often by surfacing skills they didn’t know they had.

The programme will be delivered to 30 women predominantly based in greater Glasgow over six weeks in 2024. It will include exploring their skills, understanding digital communication, and creating tangible outcomes for and with them. The programme will also pay for their travel, lunch and childcare to ensure the women do not have barriers to taking part, while there will be social events at the beginning and end to help with group bonding.

Hopefully if the programme is a success, it can encourage the Scottish government to roll out this kind of training more widely. There’s enough evidence by now to suggest that teaching ex-prisoners how to start businesses should be an integral part of their rehabilitation. Hopefully the day will come when it is available across the board in the UK.

by : Norin Arshed, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, University of Strathclyde

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