Former Felons can Only be Entrepreneurs

by francine Hardaway on October 1, 2003

Every time I visit my former foster son in the Buckeye Prison I have to write about it, because it�s so unnerving. This kid was six weeks from finishing high school when his drug experimentation got the better of him and I had to �tough love� him out of my home (he was arrested at a crack house). Two years later, he was sentenced to several years in prison for breaking and entering and all the assorted things drug addicts do in order to survive. He was not too smart; he was selling stolen cars to an undercover policeman.

He was nineteen when he went in; because of mandatory sentencing he will be 24 when he gets out in 2006. In the mean time, he got a GED and has hit the end of the line because the particular prison unit he is in does not offer college classes.

What will he be able to do when he gets out? Face facts; he�ll be unemployable. What few skills he may have had will be obsolete, and prison will not give him many more that are suitable for the knowledge economy. Prisoners have Walkmen and TVs, but not email. They can only have books sent from an outside bookstore. And those can only be paperbacks, unless you�re in minimum security, in which case you can be trusted with hardbound books. But no more than twenty.

I will not abandon him, because he�s quite different now from the way he was when he went in � full of adolescent illusions of immortality. He now knows life is tough, and he is willing to do what I tell him. Guess what I�m going to tell him?

I�m going to teach him entrepreneurship. It�s the one gift I still have left to give him. He will never be able to get a job that will allow him to support himself. He will never receive the skills he needs for employment while in prison (what few courses they do offer are oversubscribed and have long waiting lists because everyone�s bored).

But he survived on the street because 1)he is vigilant and 2)he can sell. These are two skills that can be built upon in entrepreneurship. He will probably be better than I ever was at financial controls, because I was na�ve enough to think people didn�t steal from their employers. Even as a child, he alerted me to the fact that my employees were taking the pens and the scissors home from my office.

He will also be able to take business risk, because it will seem like nothing compared to the personal risk he has already taken. And he will be innovative, because before he became my foster child he supported himself by sweeping used car lots on Van Buren Street when his parents spent the family food money on crack.

Many young people in his position are naturally entrepreneurial: they have no choice. But it seems to me their efforts at entrepreneurship should be encouraged, as I plan to encourage my son. I�m sending him the FastTrac materials and I�m going to go through them with him on the phone. I�m going to personally prepare him for the world he will meet on the outside. I�m going to try to help him develop a legitimate business that may keep him in the mainstream economy rather than the underground economy. And I�m going to try this in more than one situation; I�m going to get sponsors and apply for grants and try to extend this beyond one family.

When you arrive at the Buckeye Prison, even as a visitor, you feel as if you are in the middle of nowhere on another planet. You wait for your name to be called, you divest yourself of jewelry, valuables, and anything else in your pocket that isn�t a single car key, a driver�s license, or a roll of quarters for the vending machines. You go through a metal detector, through a revolving door that leads you into a huge barbed wire desert. You stand against a chain link fence while a drug-sniffing dog whiffs your butt. Then you get on a rickety old bus, driven by an inmate, which lets you off at the gate to the unit. When the bus pulls away, leaving you outside yet another enclosure, you already feel like crying.

Then an electric gate opens and you walk into another room through another metal detector. You sit down in a sterile room full of orange-clad inmates and their family members. A kid you have known since he was nine or ten, who did not ask for the circumstances of his childhood that led him to this moment, comes through a back door to greet you. You want to cry. Until you tell him that when he comes out, he can still be an entrepreneur.

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