Prisoner Reentry at Work: Adding Business to the Mix

Prisoner Reentry at Work: Adding Business to the Mix

Author: Melvin Delgado
Publisher:  Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012. 241p.
Reviewer: Jesse Jannetta | November 2012

Communities face tremendous challenges in facilitating the successful reintegration of the more than 700,000 individuals released from prison each year. They must address the need for legitimate income, drug treatment, mental and physical health care, and transitional housing. They must help returning citizens resolve ambivalence about change, enhance their motivation, and connect them to informal, pro-social supports. And they must do these things largely in neighborhoods that are already stressed by dire economic circumstances and extensive demands on social service systems. Organizations that can play multiple roles in a community reentry ecosystem are thus tremendously valuable.      

Melvin Delgado situates his examination of the role social enterprises can play in reentry in this context. He posits that social enterprises, which combine small businesses with social services to accomplish a social mission in addition to earning profit, are boundary spanners that bring unique assets and opportunities to reentry work. He develops his discussion of the contribution of social enterprises to reentry primarily through case studies of two prominent organizations: Homeboy/Homegirl Industries in Los Angeles and the Delancey Street Foundation, headquartered in San Francisco. Delgado’s treatment of social enterprises generally and these two organizations specifically, in the context of reentry, highlights their potential, but leaves many issues needing further exploration.

As described by Delgado, social enterprises contribute to reentry by assisting formerly incarcerated individuals with surmounting barriers to employment. Both stigma and lack of preparation to succeed in the workplace bedevil reentry populations. Employers are reluctant to hire people who have been incarcerated because they view a criminal history as a marker for poor employment performance, and indeed many who return from prison are not yet ready to thrive on the job even if they manage to obtain one. Delgado selected for his case studies organizations that work with populations that are stigmatized in this way and commonly have employment readiness deficits: gang members (Homeboy/Homegirl Industries) and people with serious substance abuse problems (Delancey Street). Homeboy/Homegirl Industries and Delancey Street operate a range of businesses staffed by the organization’s participants, from food service to silk screening to a moving company. Their enterprises address employment barriers through affording program participants opportunities to gain the benefits of employment, including wages, work experience, professional references, understanding of the world of work and increased access to pro-social networks. People for whom stigma is the primary barrier to employment obtain the work track record and references necessary to counter the false signal of their criminal history. An employer isn’t taking a blind risk hiring them; they have already proven themselves as productive employees. People who are not yet ready for work without support gain hard and soft job skills in an environment full of people familiar with the common struggles of individuals involved in crime, addiction and the criminal justice system, and also with support from the social services provided by or in partnership with the organization.

These are valuable functions, but not ones that differentiate social enterprises from transitional employment programs with a more traditional social service approach. Delgado describes several dimensions along which there is a meaningful difference between them. He notes that small businesses are integral to neighborhoods not only as economic players but as social spaces, information conduits, and gathering places. Social enterprises can play these roles in their communities, and as a result may understand their communities in a broader and deeper way than other employment or social service organizations because they occupy different social niches in their neighborhoods. Specific local and cultural knowledge is of crucial import given how racially and geographically concentrated the phenomena of mass incarceration and reentry are – something that Delgado strongly emphasizes. Based on the reentry planning efforts in which I have been involved, I can say that the importance of this kind of local knowledge is most often keenly felt when it is absent.

Social enterprises may be particularly well-positioned to change societal perceptions of ex-offenders, something both Homeboy/Homegirl Industries and Delancey Street work to do. Small business is broadly valorized in the United States, as evidenced by the discourse in the most recent presidential election campaign, so the entrepreneurial aspect of social enterprises reflects well on participants and may elicit support from quarters less likely to provide it to solely service-oriented undertakings. The examples these organizations provide of distressed communities joining forces with the formerly incarcerated to build meaningful, self-supporting institutions are inspiring to ex-offenders, their communities, and beyond. This effect is particularly strong for high-profile organizations like those of Delgado’s case studies that receive extensive media attention.

Finally, one of the advantages of social enterprises is that their income contributes to self-sufficiency, which translates into the freedom to proceed according to their mission and values. The salience of this is illustrated by Delgado’s discussion of outcomes and their relationship to funding. Whether social enterprises deliver on better employment or recidivism outcomes is an important question, as there is an increasing focus on evidence-based practice in rehabilitative and reentry work, with the evidence in question almost always defined as reduction in recidivism. Neither case study organization in Delgado’s book is evidence-based by this definition, and indeed he provides eloquent statements from leaders of both on how they are mission and value-driven in a way that makes an overriding focus on recidivism outcomes of secondary importance.

Delgado understands and values their position, but adds that the “increasing focus on evidence-based research has thrust organizations, such as Homeboy/Homegirl Industries, into quantitatively proving that what they do is not only effective, but cost-effective, too. This requires that organizations founded on a profound social mission shift their way of thinking and put mechanisms in place to generate data that can be analyzed and shared with funding sources and academics.” Two important points suggest themselves here.  The first is that it is not necessarily only in terms of measurement that such an organization would have to change, but also in terms of practice. It cannot be assumed that these organizations are delivering desired outcomes and that those outcomes must simply be substantiated. In fact, emerging evidence about the importance of risk and need targeting of recidivism-reduction interventions suggests that the open admissions policy of Homeboy/Homegirl Industries and Delancey Street would need to be revisited to maximize recidivism-reduction impact. Another assumption here is that social enterprises must demonstrate this kind of success in order to obtain the funding needed to survive, but the example of Delancey Street in particular calls that into question. Delancey Street eschews government funding to preserve autonomy, in part because income from its social enterprises affords them the independence to do so. Delancey Street does receive foundation funding however, and may have to respond to an increasing outcome orientation in the philanthropic community. In this reviewer’s opinion, it is of vital importance that there be evidence-based interventions to reduce the risk of recidivism, but that there are other equally valuable ways of working with returning citizens. Social enterprises can fund the space to advance those value propositions.

While there is much food for thought in this book, it has some serious limitations. First, it appears to draw entirely upon secondary sources in describing the two case study organizations. There is no discussion of direct observation or information-gathering to inform the case studies, or interviews with program staff or participants. More information on the method for gathering information on the case study organizations would have helped the reader understand the position from which Delgado is analyzing and drawing lessons from them. The reliance on secondary sources leaves the understanding of each organization rather thin, and sometimes raises many more questions than it answers. For example, Delgado quotes a description of Delancey Street’s counseling sessions from a Miami Herald article: “[T]he counseling sessions—called The Game—are not for the faint of heart.  The Game consists of group-therapy sessions in which participants demand blunt honesty from one another about their feelings, for better or for worse.” There’s a lot to chew on here, but “The Game” is never mentioned again. This seems to be an important glimpse of the organizational culture and approach of Delancey Street, but without further discussion or a more detailed presentation of how the organization functions, it is impossible to know what to make of it. 

Relatedly, it would be valuable to have more analysis of the differences between the two case study organizations, as well as the differences between these two organizations and other social enterprises working on reentry elsewhere. Both organizations define themselves in the language of family and community, but as presented by Delgado, Delancey Street is much more immersive, with participants living in the organization’s residential complex for an expected period of two years, and many involved for longer than that. Delancey Street does not have a professional staff; Homeboy/Homegirl Industries does. While both have peer mentoring components, Delancey Street’s “each one teach one” model seems to be more intensive. Are these differences reflective of the different communities in which each organization arose? Of the differences between focusing on gang members and addicts? What are the implications of these difference? At the conclusion of the book, I did not have any guidance on these questions. On the broader view, Delancey Street and Homeboy/Homegirl Industries are both highly visible organizations, with prominent directors/founders, and therefore able to access support and connections that might not be available to other social enterprises. It would have been illuminating to have an example of a less prominent and established social enterprise included (as well as more attention to the Delancey replication locations outside of San Francisco).

It would also have been interesting to have more discussion of the tension between the social mission of reentry social enterprise and the imperative to generate income. Small businesses fail at a high rate even when they are not trying to serve a non-commercial mission. An intriguing example comes from the discussion of Homeboy Merchandise, which was developed to sell Homeboy Industries branded merchandise such as shirts, hats, mugs and books. Delgado describes the struggles Homeboy Industries encountered with pursuing both strategies of selling directly to retailers and opening Homeboy-operated kiosks in shopping malls. He notes that selling directly to retailers was tried, “but experiences with rejection proved particularly troubling because these former inmates had so much rejection in their lives, resulting in anger and feelings of low self-worth.” Furthermore, selling to stores in malls “required Homeboy/Homegirl participants to maintain ongoing working relationships for which they were not prepared.” After mentioning these issues, Delgado goes on to say that Homeboy Merchandise has goals beyond earning income, such as publicizing the organization and serving as an outlet for participant creativity. This is surely true, but a much deeper discussion of the implications for reentry or commercial goals would nevertheless have been helpful. Were Homeboy Merchandise employees moving towards readiness to handle these situations in a workplace without a social mission? Was Homeboy Merchandise able to achieve self-sustainability within these constraints?

Melvin Delgado has done a service to the reentry movement by putting the spotlight on social enterprises and the role they play in a community reentry ecology. He left me with many unanswered questions, but also persuaded that the answers matter.

Jesse Jannetta is a Senior Research Associate with the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center.

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