Business School, Behind Bars

Photograph by Chris Salvo

MBA students from the Darden School of Business are advising prison inmates on how to start small businesses as a way to reduce the recidivism rate in Virginia.

The program, Resilience Education, funds entrepreneurship education for inmates at two prisons in Virginia, the Dillwyn Correctional Center and the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. Using Darden’s case-study method, inmates at those facilities examine successful Virginia-based businesses, and at the end of the program develop their own business plans. To qualify for Resilience Education, inmates must already have completed the prison’s vocational education program. The hope is that the new business skills the inmates acquire will help them make an easier transition back into the workforce as convicted felons, and eventually lead them to start their own companies.

“A lot of the students say they have never been in a classroom where they have felt this engaged before,” says Gregory Fairchild, the Darden professor of business administration who started Resilience Education about a year ago. “The inmates feel inspired that Darden students and faculty are coming to see them and teaching.”

To develop Resilience, Fairchild and a team of MBA students traveled to Texas last year to visit the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), a Houston-based nonprofit that equips Texas inmates with business and life skills. The program, the largest of its kind, has graduated more than 700 inmates since 2004, according to its annual report. It recruits dozens of MBA students from around the country each year to help advise the inmates on their business plans. About 25 percent of inmates released from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice return to prison within three years, while only 5 percent of PEP graduates end up back in jail, according to the report.

Fairchild is hoping Resilience Education will yield similar results in Virginia, where the recidivism rate is even higher than in Texas. About 29 percent of inmates in Virginia are reincarcerated within 36 months of being released from prison, he says. He’d like to see that rate drop below 10 percent for his graduates. Fairchild says he’ll also measure the program’s success by how many inmates secure jobs after getting out, and how many start their own businesses. While he has no immediate plans to increase the size of the program, which now includes 11 MBA volunteers, he says he’d like to see other business schools around the country replicate it.

It’s too early to tell the impact entrepreneurship education has had on the Virginia inmates because none have been released yet. About 72 are in the Darden program, but the first won’t be released until April, Fairchild says.

In the meantime, the inmates are busy finessing their business plans and preparing for life after prison. Students in the first cohort of Resilience Education have developed a number of creative ideas for businesses, including a men’s ties and accessories rental service, a construction business that will finish attics and basements, a lens-grinding company, and a computer-repair business. The majority of the inmates likely won’t start these businesses right after prison, but the skills they’ve learned will at the very least give them a leg up in finding a job, Fairchild says. All the graduates of the program receive an entrepreneurship certification from the University of Virginia.

Angie Bartles, a second-year Darden MBA, is teaching in the program this year along with her husband, Brett, also a Darden student. Before business school, the two taught in the Teach for America program, and both liked the idea of working with a different underserved population and empowering them to be entrepreneurs.

“Some of the ideas we teach may seem foreign at the beginning of the class, but after we discuss it and help them connect the dots you can see the wheels turning,” says Angie, who’ll be coaching the students on their business plans this spring. “You know you’re helping them build skills that are really going to be useful when they get out of prison.”

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