The small city of Petoskey, MI isn’t far from the Chippewa Correctional Facility, but during the summer of 2016, the city and the prison got a lot closer. It started when an inmate from Chippewa wrote a letter to SCORE’s Tip of the Mitt chapter in Petoskey.
SCORE is a nonprofit association that provides education, counseling and mentoring for small businesses and entrepreneurs in Northern Michigan. The program’s teachers are successful professionals, and they use their life experience to help other entrepreneurs grow their businesses and launch their ideas.
The letter SCORE received was from an inmate seeking additional educational opportunities. SCORE responded by visiting the prison and meeting with six inmates, most of whom are serving life sentences.
The representatives determined that the SCORE programming didn’t have much value for the lifers, but would be very useful for those with upcoming release dates. Soon after that meeting, volunteers from the local SCORE chapter started presenting business workshops at the prison. The first lessons were on how to start a business plan. Legalities, marketing and financial planning workshops followed.
Today, SCORE’s prison programing in the Chippewa facility is available for inmates that are within two years of their release dates, and who also have a GED or higher education. Attendees must also have some basic working knowledge of word and spreadsheet processing.
Much like their peers on the outside, the inmates come to class with ideas for businesses they’d like to launch. For one, it was a bakery. For another, computer repair. Some of the inmates planned to use their newfound skills to join an existing family businesses.
Why do programs like SCORE matter for inmates? Going to prison carries with it a stigma that makes getting a good job—or higher education—very difficult upon release, even if an inmate took prison education courses and holds a degree. The option of skipping the scrutiny and going into business for oneself is an attractive choice for those with limited options.
There’s another reason, too. When you hear the world “entrepreneur,” it’s easy to think of people like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Andrew Manson (Groupon), and Angelo Sotira (DeviantArt). But let’s not forget about the 28 million small businesses in America that keep the nation going—the mom n’ pop auto repair shops, the corner cafés, the clothing retailers with busy little locations, the coders whose dining room tables are also their offices. These men and women may never achieve Zuckerberg-level fame and fortune, but they are making their ways in the world on their terms and earning enough to keep roofs over their heads and food in their bellies.
Inmates given opportunities such as SCORE learn that working with their own hands for their own gain can be empowering, and doing what they love on their own terms and own time could keep them from re-offending. Perhaps the greatest score for SCORE is the anticipated effect the program will have on its participants’ recidivism rates.
SCORE plans to follow up on the participants after their release dates, so the program’s success can be measured. There are also talks of expanding the program to other prisons in Michigan. This is a good example of how innovative programming can help tackle American’s prison problems, one inmate at a time.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.