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NEWTON, Mass. — Carlos Omar Montes stood before a roomful of CEOs, angel investors and foundation representatives and pitched his idea for a mobile barbershop.

education in prison
Carlos Omar Montes, a former inmate who learned entrepreneurship at Boston College Law School, at a pitch session where he presented his idea for a mobile barbershop. Credit: Kelly Field for the Hechinger Report

Omar’s Barbershop, he told the audience, would fill a niche in the grooming market, offering the “old-fashioned experience” of hot lather and warm towels to men confined to group homes and nursing facilities.

“Omar’s will connect people to the happiest time in their lives, bringing them freedom, convenience and happiness,” said Montes, carefully groomed himself and dressed in a vest and tie for his presentation.

A year and a half earlier, Montes, 31, had been an inmate at the South Bay House of Correction in Boston. He served almost eight years in all, there and elsewhere, for possession of drugs and a firearm. Now he was in a lecture hall in a red brick, white-trimmed classroom building on the pastoral suburban campus of Boston College Law School, for the final day of an entrepreneurship boot camp that paired former inmates with law student mentors.

The stigma against job candidates with criminal records is so strong that, even with the skills they may have learned behind bars, many find it easier to start a business than get hired by one, said Marc Howard, a professor of government and law who helped start Georgetown University’s Pivot entrepreneurship program last year.

Related: Propelling prisoners to bachelor’s degrees in California

“There’s this scarlet letter F, for felony, that’s on everything you do, that affects how people look at you and judge you,” Howard said.

Project Entrepreneur at BC, launched last year, is among a small number of similar efforts that use entrepreneurship training programs to tackle high rates of unemployment and recidivism among the formerly incarcerated.

These programs, which take place both inside prisons and on college campuses, are an attempt to provide inmates and ex-inmates with the skills, confidence and contacts they need to start their own businesses. They also aim to open traditional students’ eyes to the stigmas and systematic barriers to employment former prisoners like Omar face.

Participants in prison education programs are 13 percent less likely to go back to prison than nonparticipants, one study found.

Research shows that former inmates who work are less likely to return to prison than those who don’t. Yet many struggle to find jobs. Federal and state laws bar people with criminal records from certain careers, and many employers are wary of hiring ex-convicts. According to one widely cited study, a criminal record reduces the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent.

The result: More than a quarter of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed, and nearly half are re-arrested within eight years of their release.

Related: From prison to dean’s list: How Danielle Metz got an education after incarceration

Georgetown University, whose yearlong Pivot program for prison inmates leads to a certificate in entrepreneurship. None of the students in the program have been re-arrested, Georgetown says. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

DeVaughn Bell, who was part of the first class of the Pivot program, knows the power of that scarlet F. Though he has experience managing fast-food restaurants, he struggled to get even lower-paying work as a cook or cashier after his release from prison in 2017.

So Bell, now 43, decided to open his own catering business. Pivot, he said, taught him to think more like a business owner and less like a street hustler.

“In the street-hustler mindset, you think, I paid $2, I’ll sell it for $4,” he said. “But that’s not how business works. You have to think about the whole process,” not just the profit margin.

Even more importantly, the program gave him the confidence that he could succeed, despite his history.

“The job hunt almost broke me,” he said. “The Pivot program helped me realize that this is a new chapter of my life, that I own my own story.”

Proponents of entrepreneurship education for current and former prisoners point to stories like Bell’s as proof that the programs are working. But quantifying their broader impact on rates of employment and recidivism is difficult. Some programs are too new to have accumulated much data; others can’t afford to keep track of their graduates, or have been restricted by state prison authorities from contacting former inmates.

Still, the existing evidence is encouraging. A study by the Rand Corporation found that inmates who participated in education programs were 13 percentage points less likely to return to prison than nonparticipants; it found that every dollar invested in prison education can lead to a $4 to $5 reduction in future incarceration costs.

Graduates of a prison-based program run by the University of Virginia’s business school have a 7 percent rate of recidivism, the university says. And none of the students in the first class of Georgetown’s Pivot Program have been re-arrested, according to the program.

Related: Unusual new program seeks to cut urban crime by pushing gang members into college

The growth in the number of these entrepreneurship programs has come amid growing political and public support for educating inmates and removing barriers to their employment after they’re released.

Thirty-five states and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted “ban the box” policies that bar questions about prior convictions from job applications, for instance. And last spring, the U.S. Department of Education announced it would extend an experiment that, after 20 years, restored eligibility for federal Pell Grants to some state and federal prisoners, helping them pay for college educations.

Yet hurdles remain, said Kevin Sibley, executive director of Boston’s Office of Returning Citizens, which helps formerly incarcerated people find education and employment.

“It’s, like, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re actually human beings.’ ”

Elizabeth Swanson, a Babson College faculty member who leads a program to help prisoners develop business ideas, on how students respond when they get to know the inmates

Even in “ban the box” states, many employers still run background checks late in the hiring process and drop any candidate who has committed a felony, “even when it has nothing to do with the work assignment,” Sibley said.

Such policies amount to “continued criminalization of an individual after they’ve served their time,” he said. “It’s unfair.”

The biggest obstacle now is unemployment. But rather than remaining a statistic in the weekly jobless reports, Montes has been making progress on his own business.

It doesn’t hurt that his skill is cutting hair, an in-demand service during the pandemic that he’s continued to provide for a handful of family and friends. He has raised $3,700 toward a $6,000 goal for tools and startup costs. He’s talking with the Pine Street Inn homeless shelter about helping to create a barber training program, and with the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission about getting a truck. And by the time restrictions are lifted enough for him to give haircuts in nursing homes and other communal facilities again, he hopes he will be fully up and ready to go.

education in prison
Faculty and students at Boston College Law School, which hosted a pitch session for former inmates to propose ideas for starting their own businesses. It’s part of a trend of colleges teaching entrepreneurship to inmates and ex-inmates. Credit: Kelly Field for the Hechinger Report

At BC, classes have been taught by law professor Lawrence Gennari and students enrolled in his Project Entrepreneur course; the students double as mentors. It’s been a low-budget affair. Local entrepreneurs volunteer their time as additional mentors and guest speakers, and Gennari has paid for the course materials himself to bypass the college bureaucracy.

Related: After an arrest for suspected gang activity, a young man bets on college

Elizabeth Swanson, who has led a Babson College entrepreneurship program for prisoners for a decade, said the lessons are not only for the inmates.

When she asks students, at the start of each semester, what they think about prison, Swanson said, they’ll often say something like, “I’ve seen ‘Orange is the New Black.’ ” Some are terrified to step inside a jail.

But when they get to know the inmates, through letters or visits, “they do a complete 180,” she said.

“It’s, like, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re actually human beings,’ ” she said.

Back at the BC Law School pitch session, Montes said he was turning his life around. He’s worked in barbershops in Cambridge and Framingham, but wants the independence of owning his own business. He hopes to eventually franchise the idea. He and his employees, Montes said, would be snappily dressed and specially trained to work with the elderly and others.

“You may find people who cut hair,” he said, “but you won’t get the same experience.”

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