Ohio State teaches inmates to become entrepreneurs to reduce reoffending rates

By November 27, 2017

Prison inmates in Ohio are getting ready to step into the real world with the skills to run fast-food, barbershop, and retail startups. 

The Ohio Prison Entrepreneurship Program (OPEP) – a startup itself – provides offenders with the know-how to run their own businesses. 

Launched this year, the program is a collaboration between the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. It ran at the Southeastern Correctional Institution outside Lancaster. 

So far, inmates have created plans for a chicken wing food truck, a fancy barbershop that serves craft beer, and a soul food restaurant. 

One of the teachers on the program, Jason Dolin, a former Fairfield County assistant prosecutor, said he was blown away by the enthusiasm of the inmates. 

“They are extremely enthusiastic and very appreciative,” he told Techli, adding, “Their crimes run the gamut, but I look at them as students.” 

The program will reduce reoffending rates, organizers hope. 

The organizers of the program say the goal is to “make every citizen’s first visit to prison their last” and to “unleash economic and personal potential by breaking the arrest cycle and building a talent pipeline of entrepreneurs through prison education and opportunity.”

And 19 inmates at the Southeastern Correctional Institution outside Lancaster had their first taste of success earlier this month when they pitched their ideas to a panel of judges in an event similar to the TV show, Shark Tank. 

Offenders stood in front of Fisher College of Business Dean Anil Makhija, Will Burris, the founder and CEO of virtual-reality technology company Immersive.is, and entrepreneur David Butcher – who founded the food truck business, Flyby BBQ. 

The entrepreneurs then critiqued the plans and provided advice to the inmates. 

“They [the inmates] leave here with a business plan,” Warden Brian Cook told The Columbia Dispatch. 

OPEP was launched after Dolin noticed lots of inmates were interested in startups while he was teaching civil law classes to inmates. 

After teaching a short course at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville and the Correctional Reception Center in Orient, he teamed up with the Paul Reeder, the business college’s executive director. 

The 14-week course at Southeastern Correctional recently finished, and it is due to run again next year. 

A grant of $30,000 was last year approved by the Columbus City Council for offender re-entry programs and was used to fund the project. 

Some of the cash will also be used to fund an upcoming course at the Franklin County jail. 

“We provide them with the skills they need to set up businesses and I truly hope they can [set up startups] when they are free,” said Dolin. 

The Ohio program, which is modeled after the Texas-based Prison Entrepreneurship Program that has been running since 2004, is expected to expand and is also being piloted at a women’s prison, too. 

Nearly 1,500 students from Texas prisons have graduated from that course and reoffending rates have dropped – standing at 7 per cent compared to the national average of 50 percent, organizers said. 

“It’s a win for the students who developed the curriculum and presented it and a win for the guys who took the program,” Warden Brian Cook added. 

The program is expected to expand and Dolin is also giving a six-week entrepreneurship introductory course Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW), Ohio’s primary female prison.