Report  |  prisoner reentry

Entrepreneurship for the Formerly Incarcerated: A Process Evaluation of the Pathway to Enterprise for Returning Citizens (PERC) Program

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Each year, over 25,000 individuals are released from Illinois prisons and nearly half of them end up returning to prison within three years.[1] Efforts to reduce the rate at which those released from prison (returning citizens) recidivate and go back to prison include programming that supports personal and professional development during the reentry process. As part of that effort, workforce development programs typically focus on improving the economic stability of returning citizens by providing job skills training and development. This is done under the assumption that boosting marketable skills will lead to higher rates of employment, greater income, and less recidivism. The U.S. Department of Labor, with support from private philanthropy and state/local governments, continues to fund these types of programs, which were first developed on a wide-spread level in the early 1960’s during the “War on Poverty.”[2]

Workforce development training is administered by correctional agencies during imprisonment and community organizations upon release. Unfortunately, a study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found nearly half of all U.S. prisoners lacked access to vocational training programming, primarily due to budget constraints.[3] Even when training is available, the stigma and discrimination associated with having a criminal record and the narrow scope of training available often limit the ability of workforce development programs to translate newly acquired employment skills into permanent, full-time, living-wage positions.[4] The Urban Institute completed a series of employer surveys administered in various large metropolitan areas between 1992 and 2001 and found 40 percent of employers would not hire an ex-offender.[5] In neighborhoods with high concentrations of formerly incarcerated persons, it is simply not possible for all returning citizens to find quality employment within a reasonable distance from their homes, regardless of their skill level.

To overcome barriers inherent in traditional reentry workforce development programs, entrepreneurship training programs have emerged as a potential alternative. Entrepreneurship training focuses on the skills required to start and operate one’s own business. The purpose of entrepreneurship training is specific, unlike broader business skills training.[6] Some skills that are generally included in entrepreneurship education include negotiation, leadership, creative thinking, technology training, new product development, venture capital, idea production, and business plans. [7] The body of previous research is small, but there are some indications that entrepreneurship programs may be a way to help improve outcomes for formerly incarcerated individuals.[8] Methodological limitations to the studies make it difficult to formulate strong conclusions about program effectiveness, however.

Theoretical Framework of Entrepreneurship Programs

The theoretical framework for teaching entrepreneurship skills is based on a recognition of the socio-economic conditions faced by individuals coming out of prison, the strengths they have, and internal mechanisms of behavioral change. Theoretical foundations include:

  • Socio-economic conditions. Entrepreneurship education and starting a business can help formerly incarcerated men and women circumvent workforce discrimination and stigma while creating an opportunity for high wages and economic stability. [9]
  • Strengths-based theory. When opportunities are slim, people are forced to create their own pathways to survival; this is the spirit inherent in much of entrepreneurship. Research indicates prisoners may have a unique entrepreneurial aptitude. [10] This is especially true for those who were involved in illegal enterprises, such as the manufacture and distribution of drugs. [11] For people who struggle with anger and conflict resolution, being one’s own boss may reduce the risk of losing employment.
  • Self-efficacy theory. Self-efficacy theory posits that the belief in one’s own agency and efficacy is directly predictive of how a person will respond to challenges; whether they will respond with sustained effort and healthy coping mechanisms or with less productive methods. [12] Self-esteem that is developed while writing a business plan, learning from successful entrepreneurs, and working to improve one’s life may lead to an increase in self-efficacy, and in turn, improved outcomes.
  • Micro-lending theory. After receiving training and creating a feasible business plan, securing start-up funding is the next step before opening a business. Many reentry entrepreneurship programs utilize a micro-lending model to help fund start-ups. Social micro-lending was initially developed internationally as a poverty prevention effort. [13] Beginning in the 1980’s, microfinance organizations began making small loans to women in poverty in villages throughout Bangladesh to make systemic impact on poverty. [14] Micro-finance was viewed as a way to both help individuals and support large-scale community development. [15] In Western Europe and the United States, immigrant groups helped their members by providing low interest loans for the purchase of homes or to start-up a business, thereby avoiding financial institutions that may take advantage of immigrants and the poor with predatory lending. [16] Today, U.S. micro-lending is generally conducted by non-governmental organizations which make small loans with low interest rates.

Current Study

Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA) researchers conducted an evaluation of an entrepreneurship training program named Pathway to Enterprise for Returning Citizens (PERC). PERC offers classroom training on entrepreneurship and business, mentoring, and the opportunity to obtain a loan to start a business to individuals recently released from prison and living in Chicago neighborhoods. PERC is a collaboration between the Chicago Neighborhood Initiative’s Micro Finance Group (CNIMFG), ICJIA, Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), several community-based nonprofit training organizations, and multiple private funders. The goals of PERC are to increase employment and self-sufficiency of returning citizens; decrease recidivism; and produce businesses that operate for two or more years.

ICJIA researchers completed a process evaluation examining program planning and development in the first six months of the program by using multiple methods of data collection. The evaluation of the PERC program focused on individuals that applied for PERC in Winter 2017 and completed training in Spring/Summer of 2018. The research attempted to answer the following research questions about PERC:

  • Who were the applicants and participants of the program?
  • How did the program operate in its first six months?
  • What did the stakeholders, training staff, and participants think of the program?
  • To what extent did participants learn entrepreneurship skills?


The total sample size of eligible applicants to the program was 97. Researchers conducted a randomization procedure to assign eligible applicants to PERC or a comparison group. Seventy-two were assigned to PERC and distributed among agencies based on proximity and the date of their release from prison and 25 were assigned to a comparison group. The randomized assignment to PERC was conducted as part of a future outcome evaluation, though this report focuses on the findings from a process evaluation. The number of active participants providing data through their participation in PERC declined over time, ending with 12 who “graduated” or completed the classroom training portion. Researchers used the following data collection methods to evaluate the program:

  • Administrative data provided individual-level data on PERC participants from the following four sources:

    • Program application forms offered baseline data on clients and their preliminary business ideas (n=124).
    • Prison data provided additional information on clients collected by IDOC (n=97).
    • Contact/sign-in sheets tracked of training agency contacts with participants (n=54).
    • Intake forms collected supplementary baseline data on applicants (n=26).
  • Surveys were used to learn from participants, staff, and training agencies, which included:

    • Pre- and post-test measured changes in knowledge of entrepreneurship skills before (pretest) and after the classroom training (posttest (n=22).
    • Post-training participant survey gathered feedback on experiences with PERC, including satisfaction with the program, instructor knowledge, course content, the degree to which their needs were met, and general demographics (n=9).
    • Post-training staff survey on their experience with the program (n=10).
    • Program sustainability tool measured the extent to which PERC could be sustained over time based on feedback from the training agencies (n=8).
  • Focus groups were held with PERC training agencies (n=10), as well as one with stakeholders to learn more about program development (n=5).

  • Interviews with PERC participants were conducted to learn about experiences before, during, and after the program (n=6).

Program Description

In 2016, program stakeholders raised $1.4 million dollars to fund PERC, including money for small loans for participants. In January 2017, stakeholders sent out a request for proposals for agencies to provide entrepreneurial training and education, as well as business mentoring. Stakeholders selected three training agencies—Bethel New Life, Safer Foundation, and Sunshine Enterprises, all nonprofits based in Chicago. The trainings started in March 2018 and used different training models and curriculums. The trainings used lectures, homework, and group work to teach their curricula to returning citizens recently released from prison.

Program application, selection, and assignment. PERC stakeholders from ICJIA and CNIMFG conducted informational sessions at eight correctional facilities in November 2017. To be eligible for the program, potential participants had to voluntarily apply and fully complete an application. A total of 124 prisoners filled out applications for PERC; 97 applications were eligible for the program. Twenty-seven applications were excluded due to incompatible release dates (in relation to the date classroom trainings started), missing or non-Cook County addresses, convictions for specific financial crimes or Class X sex offenses, or an incomplete consent form. After the application and selection process, the 97 eligible participants were randomly assigned—72 to the PERC program (treatment group) and 25 to a comparison group (control group). Those selected to the program were notified by staff in prison or staff at a PERC training agency.

Measure of program sustainability. Eight staff from three PERC training agencies completed the survey that includes questions in eight domains to measure the extent of program sustainability. Based on all survey responses, the extent of sustainability of PERC overall was 5.2 out of 7 on a scale of Little/no extent (1) to Very great extent (7). Lower overall average scores included funding stability (4.6), communication (4.8) and strategic planning (4.9). Improvements in some of these domains could be achieved by seeking additional sources of funding, including community members in development, enhancing program marketing, and/or sharing information about challenges and successes with the community.

Applicants and Participants

Most of the 124 PERC applicants were Black (73 percent), male (81 percent), and 73 percent had at least a high school education. Based on applications, the top four most selected (participants could select more than one) reasons for applying to PERC were:

  • Learning how to launch a business (88 percent).
  • Learning how to access funding/ funders (79 percent).
  • Creating a business plan (74 percent).
  • Financial management (74 percent).

Further, the top three business ideas on applications were restaurant/ food service (17 percent), real estate/ construction (14 percent), and fashion/ beauty/ crafts (9 percent).

PERC Participants

Demographics, resources and background

Most of the 26 participants with completed intake forms were Black (73 percent) and/or male (85 percent), had at least a high school education (64 percent), and/or had never been married (72 percent). When reporting about living circumstances and access to resources, 12 percent reported having a reliable car, 46 percent reported having some kind of health insurance, and 92 percent reported having a place to live for the next six months. In addition, 42 percent of participants had prior managerial or supervisory experience. Only 19 percent knew their credit score. Based on IDOC data, three PERC participants had a “mental health illness” and 10 had a “substance dependence.”

Self-assessment of entrepreneurship skills

Most PERC participants agreed or strongly agreed that they wanted to start a business in the next 12 months and that starting a business was not easy. Only a few participants reported having a network of people who could help them start a business (21 percent) and knowledge of how to improve their credit score (42 percent).

Contact, attendance, and completion

Of 72 eligible applicants accepted and selected into PERC training, attendance data indicated that 20 participants attended one or more training classes, meaning 72 percent did not attend any PERC classes. Additionally, class attendance decreased over time with 16 participants in week one, and 10 in week 12 (Figure 1). The average class attendance was 9.6 participants per week. There were 12 training graduates out of 72 eligible participants—a 17 percent training completion rate. The 12 training graduates had higher-class attendance (47 to 100 percent attendance) compared to non-graduates (13 to 40 percent).

Figure 1

PERC Class Attendance, by Week (n=72)*

Source: PERC administrative data
*Note: One PERC site held training for only 12 weeks and the remaining two held class for 15 weeks.

Feedback from Stakeholders, Training Staff, and Participants

Forty percent of training staff were satisfied overall with PERC; however, 90 percent supported future involvement with PERC. Sixty percent agreed that implementation went smoothly and 80 percent received training needed to perform their role. Another 80 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they were supported by PERC staff. Seven of 10 training staff responded that it was somewhat or very difficult to make initial contact with applicants. PERC training staff offered suggestions to improve PERC including closer training location proximity (n=3), expanded recruitment (n=3), and enhanced pre-release contact (n=2). Most staff reported transportation as a key issue that participants faced and for which they received help from PERC. Many staff believed that the program prepared participants to start their own business (n=6) and prepared them for the traditional job market (n=6).

PERC stakeholders thought the program needed to increase engagement including pre-release contact. Stakeholders noted in a focus group that the population served was transient and difficult to keep in regular contact with—which may have affected program retention. PERC participants suggested more flexibility in the classroom training such as holding training classes at different times of day, especially to accommodate participants who were employed.

Participants were positive regarding most aspects of the program including the quality and helpfulness of the class. However, four stated that there was too much homework. Eight of the nine surveyed participants reported that the skills they learned in PERC could help them in future job interviews. All participants agreed that training staff were knowledgeable and helpful to them in many aspects of training including answering questions, offering feedback, and explaining course material. Additionally, all nine of the surveyed PERC participants agreed (n=4) or strongly agreed (n=5) that training staff were knowledgeable about reentry issues. Overall, PERC participants responded favorably regarding the quality with which training staff treated them. This included being respectful, listening, being trustworthy, and being professional. PERC participants reported being helped with education (83 percent) and transportation (85 percent).

Changes in Entrepreneurship Knowledge

An assessment of entrepreneurship knowledge was administered twice—before the program started (as a pretest) and after the classroom training portion of the program (as a posttest). Eight of 12 program graduates completed a posttest. Four individuals had more correct answers after training, two had fewer correct answers, and one stayed the same. The number of correct answers varied by topic/question (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Percent Answering Correctly on Pretests and Posttests by Topic (n=8)

Source: ICJIA analysis of PERC data and participant Entrepreneurship Assessment scores

Implications for Policy and Practice

Based on the evaluation study’s finding, the following are suggestions to enhance PERC programming. It is recognized that many suggestions will require additional resources.

Understand the Reentry Population and Address Their Needs

Based on the focus groups, the bulk of the entrepreneurship training agencies’ prior experience was with serving mostly women participants and very few formerly incarcerated individuals. Their experience was focused on the training aspects, but the trainers may have had little exposure to individuals involved in the criminal justice system. It is important that all involved in the program understand the population they are serving, including their unique needs and challenges. PERC staff and stakeholders should be trained on those issues, as well as the reentry process, including services offered in prison, and during parole processes. The program should map reentry resources that are available, as well as those that are needed in the community area served by the program. [17]

Consider Recidivism Risks

PERC is a social program designed to not just offer entrepreneurship training, but impact recidivism among individuals who are formerly incarcerated and, to some extent, disadvantaged in society. Social programs are different than typical educational programs in that they want to assist the most at-risk individuals (also harder to treat) than those with the least risk [18] Based on decades of study, criminal justice researchers have identified principles—Risk, Need, & Responsivity or RNR—that have been proven effective to reduce recidivism. [19] Research has found programs that do not adhere to the RNR framework are likely to increase recidivism risk, not decrease it. [20] In addition, the program should avoid “creaming” or taking only the very best candidates.

Enhance Training

Returning citizens face many barriers, such as access to transportation, lack of financial resources, and parole requirements. [21] Attendance data, training staff comments, and participant comments highlighted the need for expanded training accessibility. Several participants were unable to attend classes due to work obligations or transportation. Further, participants specifically mentioned a need for training at different times and attendance data indicated that class attendance varied. If PERC worked to develop an online curriculum, include more locations, or offered a stipend to increase the overall flexibility of the program, then conflicts with accessibility could be reduced. PERC should expand training accessibility, as much as financially possible, to increase retention, participation, and the overall success of the program.

Research on entrepreneurship, and training curriculums specifically, is limited. Therefore, it is difficult to implement an evidence-based entrepreneurship curriculum. Despite this, there are some best practices that could be integrated within training. For example, it has been found that experiential learning, or “learning by doing,” is more effective for developing entrepreneurial skills and attitudes than traditional methods like lectures. [22] The PERC program should continue this practice and work to incorporate as much experiential learning as possible to increase the effectiveness of the training. In addition, a class syllabus that conveys expectations and rules generated by participants themselves could positively influence accountability and classroom outcomes. [23]

Adapt Entrepreneurship Curriculum to Population

While it is possible that training agencies are utilizing a suitable curriculum during the training process, current entrepreneurship curriculums were not developed to serve returning citizens. The PERC program should work to ensure that the curriculum used is adapted to this specific population, making changes whenever necessary.

Increase Retention of Participants

Only 17 percent of PERC participants completed the training, indicating a low program retention rate. While it is quite common for programs targeting returning citizens to experience issues with retention. [24], there are some ways that programs can increase participation. Factors that influence the retention of returning citizens include easing parole conditions and constraints, enhancing motivation and self-image, removing other barriers, offering case management services, and mentoring. [25] The PERC program should engage participants pre-release and work with parole officers to potentially increase retention in the program.

Enhance Communication, Planning, and Funding Sources

Training agency staff responses indicated program communication and strategic planning could be improved. The program could do more to communicate with stakeholders, market the program and gather support. This may include more frequent planning and reporting meetings, a PERC website or the use of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. [26] By publicizing the program, PERC can potentially gather more interest in participation; obtain volunteers and mentors; and increase funding and donations. [27] PERC was funded through private organizations; however, training staff reported low funding stability. Stakeholders can work to secure additional funding sources which could include government grants such as those through the Department of Labor and the Department of Justice.

Examine the Mentoring Process

Mentoring is a component of many reentry programs and can facilitate more successful reentry to the community if well-designed, well-implemented, and evaluated. Researchers did not observe any clear guidelines for implementation of the mentoring components, so it is recommended that it be evaluated and that best practices be utilized. Mentor training is important to the success of the program, especially if recruiting business persons who have limited experience with formerly incarcerated individuals. [28]

Continue Research Evaluation and Gather Evidence-Base on Effectiveness

Research is vital to any reentry program to learn critical information about programs and what works and what does not. There is a lack of research specifically on reentry programs offering entrepreneurship training. [29] Therefore, as the PERC program continues, research should be an integral part of the program. PERC leadership should collectively decide on research questions to be answered, which should be based on the logic model and have agreement from all stakeholders or advisory group. In the future, the pre- and post-tests should be adapted based on the curriculum being taught in trainings. In addition, future PERC researchers should create or find a validated measure of entrepreneurial knowledge. The program should test aspects of program, such as randomizing those who receive pre-release assistance compared to those who do not to measure outcomes.


This evaluation synthesized information collected in focus groups, surveys, interviews, and administrative data. The evaluation revealed staff and participants were satisfied with the program, but several areas needed improvement. A low retention rate and a graduation rate of 17 percent needs further exploration. Additionally, class attendance varied among all participants. In interviews and surveys, it was apparent that participants faced barriers to attending in-person classroom training, including conflicting work schedules, parole restrictions, travel costs, distances to training, and family commitments or issues. Training staff reported challenges with the recruitment process, making initial contact with clients, classroom training attendance, and barriers faced by the recently incarcerated. Stakeholders in future programming should allow significant time for program planning. After a lengthy and thorough planning process, stakeholders should consider piloting the program on a smaller scale. The pilot should be evaluated so that evaluation findings can be used by stakeholders in discussions on lessons learned and programmatic changes for improvement.

ICJIA researchers offer the following suggestions to improve the program:

  • Increase understanding of the reentry population’s needs.
  • Clarify the program selection process/criteria.
  • Set clear expectations and requirements for the participants.
  • Enhance aspects of the program, such as accessibility and the curriculum.
  • Engage participants pre-release.
  • Garner support and securing future funding.
  • Examine the mentoring process.
  • Continue research evaluation and gather evidence of program effectiveness.

This project was supported by Grant #16-DJ-BX-0083, awarded to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs’ Bureau of Justice Assistance. Points of view or opinions contained within this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Suggested citation for full report: Escamilla, J. Reichert, J., Weisner, L., & Mayer, C. (2019). Entrepreneurship for the formerly incarcerated: A process evaluation of the Pathway to Enterprise for Returning Citizens (PERC) program. Chicago, IL: Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

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Entrepreneurship for the Formerly Incarcerated: A Process Evaluation of the Pathway to Enterprise for Returning Citizens (PERC) Program