Grantee Spotlight:  Kent State University

Pivoting in Prison: A Need for Entrepreneurship Support

In Fall 2021, Kent State University launched a pilot program in partnership with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and Sinclair University that provides individuals incarcerated at Trumbull Correctional Institution with the opportunity to complete courses toward a bachelor’s degree with an embedded certificate in entrepreneurship.  In addition to completing program coursework, students are connected to LaunchNET Kent State, which provides venture advising services, mentorship, and workshops to help participating students explore the viability of business ideas.  KSU is engaged with community resources to ensure pathways are developed that allow released students to access internships and other resources that may help them eventually work for a business or start their own business.  There are currently 13 justice involved learners enrolled in the program.

Burton D. Morgan Foundation is proud to support this program and to share a blog provided to the Foundation by Zach Mikrut, Director of LaunchNET Kent State, and Assistant Professor of Sociology, Criminology and Justice Studies Kristenne Robison that provides insight into the impetus for the initiative and the progress and challenges experienced with program implementation thus far.

Inspiration for this project was simple. Entrepreneurial skills and training are vital to justice-involved individuals, particularly those with a felony conviction and those who have spent time out of the workforce due to incarceration, as they reintegrate back into society. Having a felony conviction can create significant barriers to success such as being ineligible for social safety net programs, being shut out from seeking licenses in certain occupations, and being denied education and jobs because they have to “check the (felony) box”. Every year approximately 600,000 individuals are released from prison nationwide. These individuals seek jobs at higher rates than their non-incarcerated peers yet experience significantly higher unemployment rates. The unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated individuals is nearly five times higher than the national unemployment rate – 27.3% compared to 5.2% (Couloute and Kopf 2018). When we consider race and gender, the numbers are even more daunting. Formerly incarcerated Black women experience the highest unemployment rate at 43.6%, followed by Black men at 35.2%, and White women at 23.2%. The many challenges and barriers to success create a cycle of incarceration that leads to 68% of released state prisoners being rearrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison (Alper, Durose, and Markman 2018). Stable income from entrepreneurial activities or employment is one of the greatest protective factors against reoffending.

Early returns from the LaunchNET advising sessions are promising and reflect this need. In the first year of the program, all enrolled participants took advantage of the entrepreneurship advising sessions, and many were eager to discuss more than one venture idea through multiple sessions. Workshops were no different, with questions and comments from participants going right up to the last scheduled minute. With an identified problem/need, engaged participants, active advising sessions, and demand for more workshops, scaling-up of the program by adding more students seems like the next logical step, but the challenges of advising in a prison demand a more entrepreneurial approach.

Visiting Trumbull Correctional Institution, as visiting any prison facility, is a time-intensive and multilayered process. On a personal level, you empty your pockets, leave your cell phone in your vehicle and take care to wear athletic shoes rather than dress shoes that may contain metal. There is airline style security, followed by several sets of doors that can only be opened when the other is locked. These doors and steel gates lead to a walk across “the yard” to work your way to the education building, where yet another sign-in process occurs.

Upon arriving at the education building, there is no guarantee that your students will be there. Various reasons, circumstances, inspections, controlled schedules, and other day-to-day happenings at a prison can lead to problems in student arrivals, early exits, or canceled programming for the day. A parole hearing or drug/alcohol rehabilitation may have taken over the advising space, leading to a last-minute change in venue and possible loss of audio/visual capabilities. This does not even get into the lack of available internet and other resources to provide “homework” and “next steps” for the students to work on after advising sessions.

These are some of the complicated elements to offering entrepreneurship advising services in a prison that are not top of mind when writing grants, seeking funding/support, and thinking through the specific topics for advising and workshops. Being an entrepreneurial program as well as learning from over two years of pandemic challenges create ideal circumstances for program pivots. We are currently exploring ways to provide access to electronic course modules for students so that we can address the resource, time, and consistency issues in our current advising model. These include adding readily available business planning documents/templates for students to access, creating a discussion board/chat feature to continue conversations between venture meeting sessions, and utilizing virtual advising or workshops for a certain percentage of sessions.

All new programs have challenges, pivots, updates, changes, and adjustments. Dealing in the uncertain environment of prison education exponentially increases each of those issues. We look forward to continuing our pivots and program tinkering as we provide much needed entrepreneurial support to the underserved incarcerated community.