How private industry and government can team up to end prison recidivism

“This article was published in the Tennessean, the Knoxville News Sentinel and the Memphis Commercial Appeal on April 7, 2021.


Way too many young people are in our jails, and a huge portion of them are repeat offenders. It is unfortunate that young people get into trouble and wind up in jail, but it is even worse when so many return to their detrimental ways and wind up back in prison.

We need to challenge ourselves to prepare inmates for successful reentry into society as fully employed, taxpaying citizens.  A sensible investment on the front end would prepare inmates for success in the world and would be miniscule in comparison to the continuing cost of additional years of incarceration, which is approaching $30,000 a year to house a single inmate.

When private industry steps up

At a conference several years ago, I heard an inspiring story of long-term rehabilitation from an industrial-seating manufacturer in Kansas.  After struggling to fill its skilled labor jobs, this company partnered with a local prison to set up a portion of its manufacturing inside the prison walls. The company hired prisoners as regular employees, taught them a valuable skill and, perhaps surprisingly, paid them competitive, market-based wages.

Think about that.  An incarcerated individual, whose future presents little or no hope, learns a skill, masters basic work disciplines and puts real money in their pocket. Better still, at the time this story was told to me, many of these newly-trained individuals went to work in the factory after their release and none had returned to prison. When you have money in your pocket, you have confidence about your future. In some cases, these individuals left prison better off financially than they were at any other time in their lives.

Half of released prisoners quickly return to prison

Today, most of the incarcerated population leave prison with their personal belongings and a small amount of cash. It is not a stretch to assume that their destination is likely right back where they got in trouble in the first place, raising the odds that they could easily get back into the same old mess. According to a 2019 report by the Sycamore Institute, about half of the state prisoners Tennessee releases each year return to prison within three years.

Now compare these two situations – one person served their time and now has a set of marketable skills and a sense of self-worth.  The other is directionless and could be on a pathway to return to incarceration.  The long-term prospects for both are clear.

A societal challenge

The challenge for our society is to build skills, confidence and character before release. This may look expensive – but the cost of recidivism is far greater, not only to taxpayers, but also to crime victims and communities as a whole.

The process of changing our ways must go first to government, to preach the importance of successful reentry and enacting better prison workforce and reentry programs.  Fortunately, our state legislature is currently undertaking proposals by Gov. Bill Lee to remedy this problem.

Then, the challenge goes to prison operators to expand the proven work being done in pockets of prisons across the country into full-scale programs of skill and character building that can be accessed by all incarcerated individuals. Then, my friends in the business world need to open their hearts and wallets to support these initiatives and support these people who need our backing.

In my career, I took the most pride in the teaching and coaching I did to develop leaders in the company. This challenge is similar.  We – all of us – can team up to make a life-changing impact on the futures of thousands of people.  You will be so proud years from now when recidivism is reduced to nearly nothing by our collective efforts.

Joe Scarlett is the retired CEO of Tractor Supply Company and vice chairman of The Beacon Center of Tennessee. Write Joe at Joe@joescarlett.com.

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