Since 1980, the number of incarcerated adults in the United States has quadrupled from roughly 500,000 to 2.2 million, now representing nearly one out of every 100 Americans. After serving their sentences, most of those individuals face an uphill battle when trying to reintegrate into society, especially when it comes to finding a job. Only about a quarter of former inmates are employed one year after their release, and only 10 percent have a job after three years.
While many are trying to tackle this challenge through criminal justice reforms, career training and job placement programs, one group in New York is deploying another tactic and presenting former inmates with an alternative career path after prison: entrepreneurship.
Based in Brooklyn, Refoundry is a nonprofit that teaches woodworking and entrepreneurship skills to formerly incarcerated adults, helping them learn to transform discarded materials into beautiful home furnishings and in the process helping them completely transform their lives.
“Our program provides people coming out of prison with opportunity for growth and challenges that move them forward,” Thomas Safian, one of the founders of Refoundry, said in an interview with Free Enterprise. “They’re working with discarded material and they often feel discarded by society. When they’re giving new value to these materials, it’s like they’re giving value to their own lives.
In Refoundry’s training program, inmates spend a year learning how to build furniture products from reclaimed wood and other recycled scrap materials. The program then helps incubate and market the fledgling businesses and their products.
“[Refoundry] not only gives [former inmates] the freedom to do what they want to do with the new skills they’ve developed, but also potentially spur more companies and job creation,” said Noreen O’Loughlin, Program Director for Made In NYC, which helps some 1,300 manufacturers in New York City, including Refoundry, market their businesses. “I think it’s beautifully ambitious in the way it’s structured.”
In the above video, Refoundry-trained small business owners James L. Eleby and Gene Manigo walk us through their transition back into society and how entrepreneurship helped them take back control of their careers and their lives.