Think about it: They’re expert bootstrappers, comfortable with unknown situations and likely to have a healthy disregard for ‘the rules.’
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According to a recently published U.S. Bureau of Justice study, 76.6 percent of the prison inmates released in 2005 were rearrested within five years. That means that for every 100 inmates of the 404,638 prisoners in 30 states researchers studied, more than three-quarters were locked up again.
That’s a staggering statistic about recidivsm given that the United States makes up 5 percent of the world’s population overall, and accounts for 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population (as shown on the website of The Last Mile, an organization I’m involved with, which goes into prisons to teach inmates skills).
This and related statistics have garnered national attention. So much so that a new prison reform bill passed the House 360 to 59, this month, in a rare show of bipartisan agreement, the National Review reported.
That bill will probably die in the Senate, the article noted. And, despite the fact that President Trump and Kim Kardashian West recently staged a selfies photo op at the White House to push prison reform (and Trump this week commuted the life sentence of an inmate Kardashian championed), these events offer little value for the vast majority of ex-convicts leaving prison.
Before I myself was locked up, I co-founded and built a megamillion-dollar business. But when I was released, I couldn’t even get a Starbucks job because of my record and was forced to reembark on entrepreneurship without a backup plan (the reason I created a Facebook group for other ex-convicts needing mentorship when starting off).
Luckily, prison prepared me for entrepreneurship even more than I could have prepared earning an MBA. And that’s a fact which has cemented my belief that ex-convicts make amazing entrepreneurs because of three qualities prison has instilled in them:
Experts in bootstrapping
As if prison riots, crappy living conditions and the absence of the internet weren’t punishment enough, the average prisoner gets a rationed state diet of fewer than 1,300 calories per day (a Sprinkle’s cupcake has more calories).
In fact, every prison inmate gets the absolute bare minimum issue of required items: typically a 2-inch golf pencil, a 2-inch toothbrush, state-issued toothpaste, a roll of toilet paper, a pair of pants, a pair of boxers, two pairs of socks, an undershirt, an over-shirt and a small towel. And, that’s it.
This minimum outlay will leave you cold, starving and struggling. You can buy commissary items, but they’re expensive, and if you don’t have any outside support, you’re out of luck.
Subsequently, each inmate becomes his or her own upstart, an entrepreneur by circumstance rather than choice. The goal is to figure out a hustle that will generate more resources. Inmates have to be relentlessly innovative and are forced to bootstrap their limited assets to maximize their resources. “Hustle,” therefore, can mean anything from running a sports book, offering tattoos and carving sculptures from soap to stenciling portraits onto bandanas and selling pics of their exes (actually a very popular hustle).
The point is that an inmate is forced to operate at his or her most optimal efficiency, leveraging those already-scarce resources. How does this apply to entrepreneurship? Bootstrapping is a vital skill for any newly formed startup.
Comfortable with the unknown
The prison journey is not a linear trip, but rather a dynamic combination of unknown stops and experiences. An inmate is constantly moved around the system, from unit to unit, sometimes prison to prison and presented with new people and scenarios throughout his or her prison stay.
The only certainty is uncertainty. For me, figuring out how to adapt to the changing environment and changing scenarios, empowered me to get comfortable with the unknown.
Startups operate in the same way. Every day presents a new challenge, a new obstacle, which has to be figured out and overcome. There’s no road map for doing prison time, and certainly no road map for building a startup.
Living with uncertainty allows inmates to be fluid with expectations and helps them them roll with the startup punches. Plus, the experiences prison presents inmates with are much more severe than anything they’ll face as entrepreneurs.
For instance, being in prison sometimes means actual threats to inmates’ lives versus the startup world — where the biggest issue is the risk that (oh no!), they’ll fail.
The mentality inmates develop inside prison can effortlessly propel their startup careers once they’re out.
Likely to have a healthy disregard for rules
Dissecting the entrepreneur versus the ex-con, I’ve found more similarities than differences. The most notable trait I’ve found? Their mutual, and healthy, disregard for rules.
For the typical entrepreneur, a healthy disregard of rules has been the defining moment in his career, where he pushed the envelope of what society dictated and built a business where one did not previously exist.
For the ex-con, who took that rule-breaking thing too far, a disregard for the rules has created an everlasting mark on her record and created obstacles that she will have to deal with for the rest of her life.
For the enlightened inmate who can harness his or her ambition and direct it toward a positive goal, disregard can be the ultimate power. A healthy disregard for rules can translate into a powerful motivating force. When harnessed and properly used, it can lead to unparalleled success in the system once the inmate is freed.
But this disregard needs to be harnessed and used for good; otherwise, it will become the reason for that high rate of recidivism previously described. A disregard for the rules can be the defining quality behind a statistic that can fall on either side of the bell curve.
In sum, there’s no debate that prison reform needs to happen. Prisons do not rehabilitate; they create scenarios that set up those returning citizens for failure. Simply put, ex-convicts can’t get jobs because of their records. And, bereft of a steady income, most of them lack the resources or support to live a normal life. So, what are their options? A return to crime is one. Entrepreneurship is another.
That’s why we entrepreneurs need to be teaching more ex-convicts how to build businesses and become positive influences in their communities. That kind of activism could be an actual and realistic solution for achieving true prison reform.