March 28, 2013
Looking past the barbed wire and armed guards, this classroom is like any other, with books, desks, even a chalkboard. Inside this room at the Dillwyn Correctional Center inmates transform into students, enrolled at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.
"When we first stepped in the classroom to teach these MBA type classes to people that were incarcerated, there were questions," said Greg Fairchild, a professor at Darden and the brains behind the Prison Entrepreneurship Program at the prison. "Would they engage, would they take the material seriously, would they be willing to talk about things the way we do in the classroom?"
In the second year of the program, Fairchild says all of his expectations have been exceeded and feedback from the inmates has been overwhelmingly positive.
"They've taught me a great deal about business," said Michael Briggs, an inmate enrolled in the program. "They've taught me about organizational design and shown me cost effectiveness. They've taught me how to make decisions and choices correctly."
Briggs has fourteen months left on a sentence for robbery and forgery and is one of twenty men enrolled in the class. Each inmate must complete an extensive application process, including a six page application and math test, to be considered for the program.
The students meet for two hours, three nights a week. Class time is spent discussing case studies. By the end of the school year, each student is expected to have his own business plan drawn out.
Briggs is using his 20 years of experience working in construction for his business model. "The name of my business is Kingdom Business Incorporated and it's a real estate and renovations company and we specialize in doing remodeling and small household projects."
Another student, Jonathan Rector, will be released next March. His goal is to open a business that cleans grease filters in restaurants. "I'm hoping I can do what's called bootstrapping, which is you start the business small, and basically use the little bit of money you have saved up to rent the tools you need and start doing the work and as the money comes in, you put it right back into the business, and hopefully it will grow from there," Rector said.
According to the Bureau of Justice, recidivism rates for released prisoners is above sixty percent. Meaning, for every three inmates released, two will be re-arrested and wind up back in prison. The state of Virginia spends about $27,000 per inmate, per year.
Fairchild says the Prison to Entrepreneurship Program doesn't just benefit the inmates, but also the community. "If we can do something to change the job opportunities for those folks so they don't return, that's not only a fiscal benefit, it's a community benefit," he said. "We are changing people's circumstances."
The inmates enrolled in the program are the first to admit finding a job once they are released wont be easy. "When I first come back into society, I'm going to run into a lot of obstacles," Rector acknowledged. "People aren't necessarily going to want to give me a job, so I feel like I need to create my own job and find something I can make income and give something back to society."
Ten MBA students at Darden volunteer their time to help Fairchild teach the class. He says this is just as much of a learning opportunity for them as it is for the inmates. There is one lesson he hopes sticks with the students in their future endeavors in the business world:
"We've all made mistakes. We've all slipped, we've all fallen short. This program is powerful because it recognizes even if you have fallen short there is still more for and about you. We take the view that we've all fallen, that we've all made mistakes and we're going to make mistakes, and let's incorporate that knowledge into what it means to be a business person and a part of society."
The Prison to Entrepreneurship Program currently exists in two prison facilities in Virginia, the Dillwyn Correctional Center and the Fluvanna Women's Correctional Center, but plans are in the works to expand the program to other facilities in the state and nationwide.