On December 21, 2018, the First Step Act was officially signed into law by President Trump. This legislation for criminal justice reform, as the name implies, marks a first step forward, but it also raises the question – what’s the next step? How can we better prepare the 650,000 incarcerated Americans who rejoin society every year and provide real opportunities at successful second chances?
At the maximum-security El Dorado Correctional Facility (EDCF) in rural El Dorado, Kansas, the prison is experimenting with a unique educational curriculum aimed at doing just that. It’s called Youth Entrepreneurs (YE), a program supported in part by Koch Industries that helps high school students discover their strengths and pursue their dreams. And now it’s poised to do the same for incarcerated adults.
The connection between inmates and entrepreneurship at EDCF all started with Koch’s leading advocate for criminal justice reform, senior vice president Mark Holden. Having volunteered at the El Dorado Correctional Facility for a number of years, Holden approached Youth Entrepreneurs president Kylie Stupka in 2015 about the possibility of testing the YE curriculum with a completely different audience: prison inmates.
“I really believe that it can make a huge impact in our prison system and what happens when people come out of it,” said Zac Kliewer, a nine-year Youth Entrepreneurs educator in Haysville, Kansas, who volunteered to teach the class at El Dorado Correctional Facility as a firm believer in the transformative ability YE has to change lives.
Kliewer’s journey from high school teacher to prison educator began in the summer of 2015, when he visited the facility for a tour ahead of his first class. Sitting outside the front gates in his car, the prospect of stepping into a classroom with a dozen inmates and an unarmed guard immediately became real.
“It was pretty intense,” added Kliewer.” I think I called my wife and said, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ I mean, you’re looking at a maximum-security prison. You’re about to be in a room with 12 guys that did something to get in there, and you’re going to have one guard who doesn’t have any type of weapon, and you’re like, ‘What did I just sign up for?’
“And then, after day one, it was fine.”
Transformation through education
Assigned an inaugural class of 12 inmates ranging in age from 24 to 65, Kliewer began a crash course in YE spread over 27 hours of intensive instruction covering different concepts of the curriculum. And while he had to get special permission from the prison, Kliewer made sure it all started with a handshake.
“They agreed to let me shake hands, and it was shocking to see the inmates’ reactions. A lot of them didn’t know what to do when I stuck out my hand until a guard said, ‘You can shake his hand.’ I think it made a good first impression, because it showed them that I was not there to dehumanize or judge them.”
For Kliewer, seeing his students talk about the concepts they learned in his class and how they could apply them to their own lives – concepts like fair trade, being principled and maintaining a win-win focus – was one of the most rewarding parts of the whole experience.
“There are really no classes that actually teach you real-world skills that you might be able to take out of prison and change your life,” said Kliewer. “And I feel like the way the YE curriculum is set up, and the lessons you learn in it – generally changes the way you perceive the world, and the way you perceive business, and how you can interact with other people.”
While Kliewer had to do very little modification to the coursework he was used to teaching his high school kids, he was pleasantly surprised by some of the positive differences between his inmate students and his traditional students.
“You get high school kids who are like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go to school.’ And these guys were genuinely happy to be there every day and are engaged the whole time. We could have made it a six-hour course. There was no falling asleep. There was no, ‘I’m not into this.’ It was three hours of just straight ‘going.’ It was three hours I had to be on my A-game.”
A hunger for knowledge
As soon as the first session of YE at EDCF began, it became clear that there was no “off” switch. While class sessions were technically three hours long, they were really 24/7. From the time each session ended until the next class began, inmates were constantly sharing, thinking and talking about the lessons they were learning in the classroom.
That desire to learn and commitment to the coursework carried over to their business plans – YE’s semester-long project that culminates with a business pitch to a panel of YE board members and staff.
Putting strengths and skills to work was a common theme among inmates as they tapped into their personal passions to piece together business plans. An artist within the group developed a plan to illustrate tattoos. Another inmate with a college background in accounting proposed starting a private tax service. One inmate was even able to turn his business plan for auto mechanics into a job at an automotive shop upon his release from prison.
But one of Kliewer’s greatest breakthroughs came from one of his oldest students – a Cuban immigrant imprisoned since 1984. At the start of the session, the student didn’t feel comfortable speaking in front of the class or engaging with his peers. However, by the end of the session, he had become one of Kliewer’s best participants with one of the strongest business plans.
“I think it’s why you’re an educator, to impact people’s lives,” said Kliewer. “You’re not an educator just to teach the top 10%. You’re an educator to teach everybody, especially those in need. And these are people in need … people who are going to go out into the real world, and who have maybe had a hard life and need that instruction. I find it very, very rewarding.”
Keeping the momentum going
Due to its popularity and the positive response from prisoners, YE has continued at EDCF and remains one of the prison’s most popular programs. For Gabe Morales, a re-entry program coordinator at EDCF who took over the program once Kliewer returned to school, knowledge like this can be life-altering for inmates rejoining society, and one of the strongest benefits he sees in teaching YE at EDCF.
“Everyone I’ve worked with is going home one day,” said Morales. “A lot of these guys are fathers with children and wives. If they’re going to go back into the community, you want them to be successful. The state has a pretty good recidivism rate, and we want that to stay down. And helping people create their own jobs can be a huge contributor to keeping that rate down.”
Morales, who himself was inspired to study criminal justice when a close family member was incarcerated, noted the unique benefit of entrepreneurship education for inmates, who typically encounter many different hardships when seeking employment. By learning the Foundational Values of Youth Entrepreneurs, like responsibility, sound judgment, opportunity and win-win focus, his inmates are better prepared to create opportunities for themselves.
“A lot of these guys stress about what they’re supposed to do, or what they’re going to do, or how they’re going to find work when they go home,” said Morales. “And this gives them hope. They learn that they can maybe create their own work instead of trying to find work.”
For Morales, maintaining a win-win focus is critical to inmates’ success, not just within the program, but once they’re released from prison. Too often, he sees guys encounter roadblock after roadblock only to revert to criminal behavior and end up reincarcerated. But inmates with a win-win focus see the bigger picture and stand a better chance at succeeding on the outside.
“They know that coming up with a good release plan to go home helps the facility and their families win, as well as themselves. And being able to find employment, even if they have to create their own employment, they win. But they also create something good for the community, so the community wins, too.”