From the Chicago Reporter
Like many ex-offenders, Marshawn Feltus has heard every iteration of the word no when looking for employment.
Feltus searched for work for months when he was released from prison five years ago.
“If anything was certain in my life, I knew I wasn’t going to do any more time,” he said. “It didn’t matter how many people said no. I was not going to get so frustrated that I was going to go back to crime.”
Then he got a grant from a West Side nonprofit to start his own business — the first yoga studio in the Austin community. Feltus learned yoga while serving 18 years in prison on a murder conviction. He never thought yoga would turn into a career, let alone a business.
When he was released from prison, the goal was simply to get a job. Since then, state laws have removed barriers to employment for ex-offenders; those barriers are a key driver of recidivism rates. Now advocates for criminal justice reform, with support from some government agencies, are making entrepreneurship a part of re-entry programs to try to reduce prison costs by helping people stay out once they are released. In Illinois 48 percent of people released from prison return within three years while 19 percent return within one year, according to the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council.
Though he didn’t receive support from a program that targets ex-offenders, Feltus’ business success shows the promise of entrepreneurship training for returning prisoners.
In August, the U.S. Small Business Administration launched a $2 million program to teach 200 former felons how to run their own businesses and provides them with microloans to start them. The pilot, which is in four cities– Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Louisville, Kentucky – will launch in spring 2017 with 50 people from each city. The move follows a 2015 decision to rid the felony question from its loan application, opening the door for ex-offenders to get financing.
Equipping former inmates with entrepreneurship skills to create businesses and jobs could be another way to expand the opportunities for people with records, says Victor Dickson, president and CEO of Safer Foundation, which provides job training and re-entry services for ex-offenders.
“More than 75 percent of all the new jobs created are not from big corporations; they’re from small businesses,” said Dickson, whose nonprofit organization has signed on to provide training for the Small Business Administration’s program known as the Aspire Entrepreneurship Initiative. “When we are struggling to find work for people with records, one way to address that is to facilitate more individuals to start businesses because those are the ones that really create the jobs.”
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