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Students help ex-inmates start their own businesses

Carlos Omar Montes, who lives in Framingham, keeps all the equipment and supplies for his mobile barbershop in a 5' X 5' storage unit in Ashland.  The former inmate, who attended a bootcamp at Boston College Law School to learn entrepreneurship, pitched his idea for Omar's Mobile Barbershop and is trying to build his business.
Carlos Omar Montes, who lives in Framingham, keeps all the equipment and supplies for his mobile barbershop in a 5' X 5' storage unit in Ashland. The former inmate, who attended a bootcamp at Boston College Law School to learn entrepreneurship, pitched his idea for Omar's Mobile Barbershop and is trying to build his business.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

NEWTON — Standing before a roomful of CEOs, angel investors and foundation representatives at Boston College Law School late last year, Carlos Omar Montes pitched his idea for a mobile barbershop.

Omar’s Barbershop, he told the audience, would fill a niche in the grooming market, offering the “old-fashioned experience” of hot lather and warm towels to men who are confined to group homes and nursing facilities.

“Omar’s will connect people to the happiest time in their lives, bringing them freedom, convenience and happiness,” said Montes, dressed in a vest and tie for his presentation.

A year and a half earlier, Montes, now 31, had been an inmate at the South Bay House of Correction in Boston. He served almost eight years in all, there and elsewhere, for possession of drugs and a firearm. Now he was in a lecture hall on the pastoral suburban campus of Boston College Law School, for the final day of an entrepreneurship boot camp that paired former inmates with law student mentors.

Carlos Omar Montes keeps all the equipment and supplies for his mobile barbershop in a 5' X 5' storage unit in Ashland.
Carlos Omar Montes keeps all the equipment and supplies for his mobile barbershop in a 5' X 5' storage unit in Ashland. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Covid-19 would arrive a few weeks later. Still, Montes spent the lockdown positioning himself to move forward with his business as soon as reopening allowed — amid a recession that otherwise would have made it considerably harder for him to get any other kind of job.

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The idea of bringing higher education inside prisons got considerable momentum in the years leading up to the pandemic, becoming the subject of books, documentaries and extensive media coverage.

But if ex-inmates weren’t getting hired before coronavirus, they are unlikely to be in the front of the line now that millions of Americans are unemployed, no matter how much education they received.

The stigma against candidates with criminal records is so strong that, even with the skills they may have learned behind bars, many find it easier to start a business than get hired by one, said Marc Howard, a professor of government and law who helped start Georgetown University’s Pivot entrepreneurship program last year.

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Montes showed how he sets up his station.
Montes showed how he sets up his station. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“There’s this scarlet letter F, for felony, that’s on everything you do, that affects how people look at you and judge you,” Howard said.

Project Entrepreneur at BC, launched last year, is one of a small number of similar efforts that take place both inside prisons and on college campuses and attempt to provide inmates and ex-inmates with the skills, confidence and contacts they need to start their own businesses. They also aim to open traditional students’ eyes to the stigmas and systematic barriers to employment former prisoners like Omar face.

Research shows that former inmates who work are less likely to return to prison than those who don’t. Yet many struggle to find jobs. Federal and state laws bar people with criminal records from certain careers, such as teaching, social work, or even, in some states, jobs in animal control or funeral homes. And many employers are wary of hiring ex-convicts. According to one widely cited study, a criminal record reduces the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent.

The result: More than a quarter of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed, and nearly half are re-arrested within eight years of their release.

DeVaughn Bell, who was part of the first class of the Pivot program, knows the power of that scarlet F. Though he has experience managing fast food restaurants, he struggled to get even lower-paying work as a cook or cashier after his release from prison in 2017.

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So Bell, now 43, decided to open his own catering business. Pivot, he said, gave him the confidence that he could succeed, despite his history.

“The job hunt almost broke me,” he said. “The Pivot program helped me realize that this is a new chapter of my life, that I own my own story.”

Quantifying the broader impact of entrepreneurship programs on rates of employment and recidivism is difficult, but a study by the Rand Corporation found that inmates who participated in education programs were 13 percentage points less likely to return to prison than nonparticipants. And, the study found, every dollar invested in prison education can lead to a $4 to $5 reduction in future incarceration costs.

The growth in the number of these entrepreneurship programs comes amid widening political support for educating inmates and removing barriers to their employment after they’re released. Thirty-five states, including Massachusetts, and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted “ban the box” policies that bar questions about prior convictions from job applications, for instance.

Yet hurdles remain, said Kevin Sibley, executive director of Boston’s Office of Returning Citizens, which helps formerly incarcerated people find education and employment. Even in “ban the box” states, many employers still run background checks late in the hiring process and drop any candidate who has committed a felony, “even when it has nothing to do with the work assignment,” Sibley said.

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Elizabeth Swanson, who has led a Babson College entrepreneurship program for prisoners for a decade, said the lessons of these prison entrepreneurship programs are not only for the inmates.

When she asks students, at the start of each semester, what they think about prison, Swanson said, they’ll often say something like, “I’ve seen ‘Orange is the New Black.’” Some are terrified to step inside a jail. But when they get to know the inmates, through letters or visits, “they do a complete 180,” she said.

“It’s like, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re actually human beings,’ " she said.

At BC, classes have been taught by law professor Lawrence Gennari and students enrolled in his Project Entrepreneur course; the students double as mentors. Local entrepreneurs volunteer their time as mentors and guest speakers.

The biggest obstacle now is unemployment. But rather than remaining a statistic in the weekly jobless reports, Carlos Omar Montes, the ex-inmate who wants to open a mobile barbershop, has been making progress on his own business.

Supplies in the mobile barbershop.
Supplies in the mobile barbershop.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

It doesn’t hurt that his skill is cutting hair, an in-demand service during the pandemic that he’s continued to provide for a handful of family and friends. He has raised $3,700 toward a $6,000 goal for tools and startup costs. He’s talking with the Pine Street Inn homeless shelter about helping to create a barber training program, and with the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission about getting a truck. And by the time restrictions are lifted enough for him to give haircuts in nursing homes and other communal facilities again, he hopes he will be fully up and ready to go.

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Back at the BC Law School pitch session, Montes told his audience he was turning his life around. He’s worked in barbershops in Cambridge and Framingham, but wants the independence of owning his own business. He hopes to eventually franchise the idea. He and his employees, Montes said, would be snappily dressed and specially trained to work with the elderly and others.

“You may find people who cut hair,” he said, “but you won’t get the same experience.”

This story about education in prison was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.