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Recovery Through Entrepreneurship

Reentry and reintegration of criminal justice clients are the primary goals of all criminal justice rehabilitative efforts.  There are few who would disagree that jobs are a major key to successful recovery.  There is a need for a fresh approach to employment through entrepreneurial trainings and opportunities for prison inmates and participants in community substance abuse treatment programs.  The focus of this blog is on increasing employment opportunities for substance abusers as a means of aiding recovery, reducing recidivism and facilitating a prosocial lifestyle. The need to improve employment opportunities is evident from the substance abuse and criminal justice literature. Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of substance abuse treatment in reducing drug use and recidivism, while employment – an important aspect of a prosocial lifestyle -- has lagged behind. Thus, new models for providing vocational training must be developed. In light of this need, the proposed alliance support the utilization of social entrepreneurship as a means of making vocational training a more significant treatment tool, one that is thoroughly integrated into the recovery process.

In recent years social entrepreneurship has received great attention by business and foundations that have harnessed youthful entrepreneurial energy to work on many seemingly intractable social problems (Keohane, 2013).  Social entrepreneurship is also one of the fastest growing areas of study in universities and college campuses.  We need to build upon the nascent beginnings of applying entrepreneurial approaches to employment for substance abusers and other criminal justice clients.  A comprehensive report “Venturing Beyond the Gates: Facilitating Successful Reentry with Entrepreneurship” provides an overview of the area and numerous examples of the fiscal benefits of entrepreneurial programs with disenfranchised populations (Lindahl & Makamal, 2007). The basic approach of social entrepreneurship in prisons and treatment programs involves the development of local industries and businesses that are integrated in the treatment regimen. In prisons, a few of these types of programs have already provided vocational training for inmates. In community-based substance abuse treatment programs, these homegrown businesses serve as both a training ground for clients in job skills, management, and an entrepreneurial spirit, while also serving as a source of revenue for the program; providing jobs for clients in a difficult marketplace, and providing a source of revenue for the program in an environment where funding has become more difficult.

Background and Significance
Substance abuse treatment has demonstrated success over the years in fostering recovery and reduction in recidivism rates and criminality (Wexler & Prendergast, 2010). These programs have been less successful, however, in the area of employment, which represents an important component of a prosocial lifestyle.  This is particularly true for the large percentage of substance abusers with criminal justice records where the relationship between substance abuse and crime complicates the issue of attaining and maintaining gainful employment beyond treatment.  Without employment, offenders are three to five times more likely to commit a crime than are those who gain employment after leaving prison. Yet, employment is difficult to come by and maintain.  In addition to the poor economy and generally high rate of unemployment, offenders have the stigma of criminal justice involvement, a low level of education, few marketable skills, and significant gaps in work history. Surveys show that more than 80% of employers conduct criminal records checks and 60% would not hire someone with a criminal record citing both fear and liability concerns. This situation is further exacerbated by Federal and State restrictions on the types of jobs that ex-offenders can hold. 

Although the integration of treatment and vocational training, including screening and assessment, education, pre vocational and vocational training, and employment services has been recognized (i.e., SAHMSA TIP 48, Integrating Substance Treatment and Vocational Services), the issue of employment lags behind other treatment initiatives notwithstanding the positive evidence that employment rates can be raised.  Prior studies have shown how work release can help prisoners with histories of substance abuse maintain recovery and develop prosocial lifestyles (Inciardi & Martin). More recently, programs such those in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation where prisoners learn trade skills, produce items for sale, and leave prison with the tools of the trade they learned, have attracted attention (Wexler, personal communication, 2013).

Programs that focus more specifically on entrepreneurial training have also been emerging and gaining attention. The Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College has focused attention on social entrepreneurship training as a means of addressing the lack of employment. A number of social entrepreneurship programs have been implemented, including the Delancy Street Foundation, the Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers, and Prison Entrepreneurship Program. A current pilot program at the Amity Foundation’s new Center for Social Entrepreneurship is an exciting and innovative model that attempts to integrate entrepreneurial training and vocational training in the therapeutic community to provide an edge for successful reentry.

Next Steps
An alliance is needed to bring together different groups that will actively engage treatment stakeholders in discussion with community groups, business, and researchers. We need to invite the support and participation of institutions, including representatives of business national labor unions, large treatment agencies (e.g. Spectrum Health Systems), American Probation and Parole Association, National Association of Drug Court Professionals, foundations, university schools of business and social policy and the National Conference of State Legislators. The goal of the alliance is to develop a system, or systems to integrate meaningful entrepreneurial vocational training to support recovery, and initiate a research and evaluation agenda to support the vocational initiative. We will need to focus on successful applications of social entrepreneurial program efforts in prisons and substance abuse treatment programs and ways in which government, foundations, business, universities, labor unions and policy makers can help treatment programs develop entrepreneurial programs. Discussions between the diverse groups will provide opportunities to share different perspectives and generate questions about scientific findings, while discussing the challenges of funding, and implementing and sustaining entrepreneurial training at the program level. As a result, stakeholders will be in a better position to consider combining resources and exploring the integration of entrepreneurially enhanced employment training as part of substance abuse treatment.


Keohane, G.L, (2013) Social Entrepreneurship for the 21st Century McGraw Hill

Lindahl, N. & Mukamal, D. (2007) Venturing beyond the gates, Facilitating successful reentry with entrepreneurship. Prisoner Reentry Institute, John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Wexler, H.K. & Prendergast, M.L. (2010) Therapeutic Communities in United States Prisons: Effectiveness and Challenges. International Journal of Therapeutic Communities. 31(2), 157-176.



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