• 4/16/2015

Inmates more optimistic about society after completing entrepreneurship program

Entrepreneurship education in prisons can change offenders’ attitudes

Offenders develop a more positive attitude towards their own future and towards society in general if they take part in an entrepreneurship education program in prison. The prerequisite is that they have assumed responsibility for their own lives, as a study conducted by Technische Universität München (TUM) and Indiana University (USA) has now shown. Based on these results, the scientists have developed recommendations for structuring such entrepreneurship programs.

participants of an entrepreneurship education program in a German prison
Business behind bars: participants of an entrepreneurship education program in a German prison. (Photo: Leonhard gGmbH)

After being released from prison, many former inmates find it very difficult to find a job. That is why initiatives have been launched over the past years which introduce entrepreneurship education programs in prisons in Europe and in the US with the aim of teaching prisoners how to start their own business. The concept: by becoming self-employed, former prisoners are no longer dependent on employers with discriminatory attitudes. Furthermore, some organizers believe that an entrepreneurial mindset can have a positive influence on the offenders’ conduct. However, the results of the programs are mixed: on the one hand, there are prisoners who in fact set up a business or use their new knowledge to find an employer after their release; on the other hand, some participants do not even finish the courses.

Economists from TUM and Indiana University have now studied the conditions that motivate prisoners to persist with the entrepreneurship programs until completion – and whether learning about entrepreneurship does in fact bring about a change in their attitudes. In a German prison, the researchers met with 12 male participants attending a 20-week-long course, five of who dropped out of the program prematurely. The offenders had been convicted of homicide, drug dealing or arson for which they received prison sentences of up to six-and-a-half years. They had different educational and occupational backgrounds. As part of the training they prepared business plans, for example for an art café or a meal delivery service for the elderly.

Participants who quit the program blamed others for their incarceration

The scientists conducted interviews with the participants at the start, about halfway through and at the end of the educational program. Among other topics, they asked the inmates about their past and their plans for the future, about day-to-day life in prison and their motivation for taking part in the course, and later also about their business ideas and their views on the program. Additional research resources included interviews conducted with the two instructors, the participants’ application forms and the business plans prepared in class.

Evaluating the coded information revealed that the participants who quit the program prematurely exhibited what is known as learned helplessness: they blamed others – for example the judge or their family – for their incarceration and did not believe that they would be able to be in control of their own lives after being released. By contrast, the prisoners who persisted with the program until completion assumed responsibility for the crimes they had committed. They displayed a general sense of optimism and were convinced that after prison they could essentially determine their own fate as free men.

“I am responsible for getting myself into this situation – but afterwards I can make a fresh start! If a person does not possess this basic attitude and the capacity for self-regulation, they feel that their life is in the hands of others and are therefore not capable of seeing the purpose of entrepreneurship,” says Prof. Holger Patzelt, Chair of Entrepreneurship at TUM.

“It is a nice feeling to have normal dialogue”

However, the offenders who were able to critically reflect on their current situation were able to recognize an opportunity for self-employment. This outlook, along with the act of making specific plans during the program, in turn encouraged the prisoners to think about their future in a constructive manner. “I now have various points of view of what could be done better,” said one participant. “These perspectives, this whole issue we discuss enables us to sharpen our view, even about other situations that come up in life.”

The result: by the end of the educational program, these participants not only had more faith in their own competencies; they had also developed a more positive attitude towards their imprisonment, as well as towards others and their social environment. “It is a nice feeling to be accepted as a human being, to have normal dialogue,” said one participant.

“Entrepreneurship education programs in prisons can change the offenders’ fundamental attitude – not just towards entrepreneurship, but also towards important aspects of life that go far beyond what is taught in the programs,” says Prof. Holger Patzelt. “Building on a rather vague sense of optimism, the prisoners can develop a positive and constructive view of their personal future and of society as a whole.”

Do not begin programs with business plans

Based on these findings, the scientists derived a series of recommendations on how to structure these courses: when selecting the participants, the organizers should make sure that the applicants have the right mindset. From the outset, the program should mainly focus on working with the participants to identify their individual strengths and opportunities. “After all, many of them start out believing ‘I’m not qualified for anything’,” says Patzelt. “So if you start talking about business plans or case studies in the very first lesson, there’s a high risk that they will drop out.”

Leonhard, an initiative that organizes entrepreneurship education programs for inmates of several German prisons, revised its training program early on as soon as the first interim results of the study were published and integrated a personality training course. Managing director Dr. Bernward Jopen is convinced that these changes to the program will further improve the results: “Previously, a quarter of the participants on average began displaying behavioral problems by the end of the first half of the program, for example by exhibiting low frustration tolerance or outbursts of anger. Halfway through the course that is currently ongoing, we haven’t had a single such case.”


Holger Patzelt, Trenton A. Williams and Dean A. Shepherd. Overcoming the Walls That Constrain Us: The Role of Entrepreneurship Education Programs in Prison. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2014, Vol. 13, No. 4, 587-620; DOI: 10.5465/amle.2013.0094

Prof. Holger Patzelt
Technische Universität München
Chair of Entrepreneurship
Tel: +49 89 289 26749
patzeltspam prevention@tum.de

Technical University of Munich

Corporate Communications Center

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