From inmates to entrepreneurs

How to end the unvirtuous cycle? In the UK and elsewhere, identifying how to successfully reintegrate ex-offenders and prevent them from re-offending is a major challenge.

While ­– at least in the public mind – the main goal of imprisonment is the punishment of the criminal, an equally if not more important task is his or her preparation for re-entry into society. The UK prison system performs poorly in this regard, with 45% of all released prisoners reoffending within a year, and 66% of released juvenile offenders doing so. Two year re-offending rates are around 60%. Beyond simply being a proof of the failures of our prison system, these new offences are estimated by the National Audit Office to cost the UK economy up to £13 billion annually, a bill largely footed by the taxpayer.

Successful reintegration into society and the economy depends on ex-offenders securing a good job. Employment provides stability, autonomy and income. But despite government policies to improve the employability of prisoners and practical training offered by prisons to achieve this, in 2014/15 73% of prisoners were without work upon release. This goes some way in explaining our high rate of recidivism, as without the stable income a job provides, many ex-offenders will turn to illegitimate means to provide for themselves.

Efforts to make convicts more employable will only succeed if they get employers on board. Yet despite a whole raft of schemes to train and educate prisoners for life after incarceration, including emphasising specific skills in high demand, they are fragmented in both design and delivery, and have failed to produce significant results. While some of the blame can be apportioned to scheme design, the largest stumbling block remains employers’ unwillingness to hire ex-offenders.

Employers worry about ex-offenders posing a danger to their organisations, employees and customers, and fear negative reputational effects, despite evidence showing that hiring ex-offenders actually improves corporate image. While it is important to work towards changing these attitudes, this is unlikely to happen in the short-run.

In an upcoming publication, the Centre for Entrepreneurs will investigate the potential of supporting ex-offenders into entrepreneurship. Unlike traditional employment, entrepreneurship does not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, nationality or in this case, criminal record. For ex-offenders, entrepreneurship allows them to pursue the opportunities best suited to their skillsets, attributes and interests, while offering them a more flexible environment in which to reintegrate with society.

There are convincing psychological reasons to believe that entrepreneurship is a suitable career path for many ex-offenders. Nobel Prize candidate and renowned economist William Baumol has suggested that criminals (particularly members of organised crime) and entrepreneurs are cut of the same psychological cloth, in that both tend to be highly independent, resourceful, alert to hidden opportunities, and opposed to conventional ways of doing things.

What makes the difference – determining whether a person becomes one or the other – are environmental factors: education, upbringing, socio-economic status, luck, as well as the wider societal incentives and institutions that can either encourage or discourage legitimate entrepreneurship.

Our report on entrepreneurship and ex-offenders will review what has already been achieved in this space, including such notable initiatives as the Prison Entrepreneurship Program in Texas, which puts prisoners in the same room as executives, entrepreneurs and MBAs and has achieved a 5% re-offending rate while saving the state money, and the Leonhard programme in Germany. While several programmes along the same lines exist in the UK ­­– not without their own successes in reducing re-offending – they have yet to replicate the scope and scale of their international brethren.

We will argue that if the government is serious about tackling recidivism, the presence of enterprise education and support across Britain’s prisons and rehabilitation services must be greatly increased, making specific recommendations as to how this should be done. The current method of putting offenders behind bars in an environment wholly removed from the real world, and then hoping they will find a job and support themselves once out, results in high rates of recidivism and great human and financial waste.

In a society where freelancing and entrepreneurship are transforming the nature of work, those disadvantaged vis-à-vis conventional employment (such as ex-offenders) have the most to gain.

If you have thoughts on this topic and experience in the criminal justice sector (as an employee, offender, non-profit or academic) we would like to hear from you. You can email me directly at

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