It is no secret that the United States of America—despite our deeply-held and historically-rooted commitment to the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—has the uncomfortable aberration of also being the nation that incarcerates the highest number of its citizens, standing at over two million people. Maintaining this ignoble distinction does not come cheap either. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that this scale of incarceration saddles taxpayers with a cost of over $80 billion annually.
Even when setting aside that extraordinary cost, Washington University in St. Louis’ Institute for Advancing Justice Research and Innovation found that the economic effect associated with locking such staggering numbers of the population behind bars and out of the workforce bears an average annual loss of $70.5 billion in productivity and “reduces a person’s lifetime earnings between ten and forty percent.” This astounding number is compounded by findings detailed in a new report by the Brookings Institution, where these factors translate into the much more poignant and piteous fact that “only 55 percent of those previously incarcerated have any reported earnings.”
Worse still, the enduring reality that poverty is connected to crime adds to the immense human cost of mass incarceration in the United States when framed by findings from a 2005 study. The Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed that over three-fourths of individuals released from prison would recidivate within five years of their release. The cycle of poverty, arrest, and perpetuation of a horrific status quo show the human failures and financial overages of our criminal justice system to be woefully ill-suited to putting those in prison on a path to rebuilding their personal capital and—most arduous of all—breaking the cycle.
The question quickly becomes one of what, if anything, can be done about it. As with most social innovations, observing the work that private enterprises and philanthropic organizations are embarking upon to solve the devastating and complex issue of criminal rehabilitation delivers promising headwinds against the tempests of mass incarceration and punitive models for criminal justice. Two in particular, the Texas-based Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) and the Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing & Able, are fine examples of how private initiative is helping to deliver on what Founding Father John Hancock called the “common cause [of contributing] to the security of the liberties of America.”
The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) is a private initiative that engages with men currently in prison to help them establish a stable and fruitful life once released. According to PEP’s own mission statement, their animating ethos is their endeavor to “transform inmates and executives by unlocking human potential through entrepreneurial passion, education and mentoring.” A noble way to address the above issue to be sure, but how effective are they at attaining this goal? A report released by the American Enterprise Institute focusing specifically on PEP found that by instructing “incarcerated men on how to become business entrepreneurs upon their release and then works with them and their families indefinitely after their sentence is over.” The report goes on to detail that “100 percent of PEP graduates are employed within 90 days of their release, 74 percent of graduates released more than three years ago have been employed by their current employer for more than one year, and 41 percent of those released more than three years ago earn more than $52,000 per year.” With successes like these, PEP is making the case that private leadership in prisoner rehabilitation is capable of completely revolutionizing the lives of former inmates.
The Doe Fund is another pioneer in the private effort toward prisoner rehabilitation. Through their program Ready, Willing & Able, the Doe Fund strives to provide formerly incarcerated individuals with “opportunity to go to work and earn money,” and statistics such as the fact that 60% of program graduates do not recidivate and 78% of program graduates are employed after six months. Indeed, research conducted by the Prison Studies Project evaluating the effectiveness of Ready, Willing & Able found that the positive outcomes from program graduates “adds to a growing body of evidence that transitional employment […] can contribute significantly to criminal desistance among men recently released from incarceration.” In other words, by investing in the dignity of former inmates and breaking the cycle of poverty and prison, individuals who have been recently released from prison benefit from the stability and sense of purpose they earn through work and private enterprise.
The issue of mass incarceration and the crucial need to break the cycle of poverty, prison, release, and reoffense is of the utmost importance when considering the variety of social and economic costs associated with maintaining the status quo. The results from organizations like the Prison Entrepreneurship Program and Ready, Willing & Able are evidence of the enormous success that private and philanthropic groups can have in transforming the lives of former prisoners. This more hands-on, supportive, heartening, and humane approach vastly outperforms the punitive methods and exorbitant costs of simply locking up individuals with little attention given to the needs of individuals both while they are in prison and after they are released. By empowering private groups over the ruinous and expensive government alternative, the cycle that contributes to America’s mass incarceration malaise has a genuine hope of being broken.