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Aug. 29, 2012 10:48 am

Mission: Launch job program turns former prisoners into budding entrepreneurs

Teresa Hodge is starting her life over. In some ways, Hodge, 48, isn’t so unlike other middle-age Americans who have lost their jobs in the last five years. There is, however, one glaring difference: for nearly five years, Hodge served time at a women’s prison in Alderson, West Virginia, a minimum security federal facility. “By […]

Teresa Hodge is starting her life over.

In some ways, Hodge, 48, isn’t so unlike other middle-age Americans who have lost their jobs in the last five years. There is, however, one glaring difference: for nearly five years, Hodge served time at a women’s prison in Alderson, West Virginia, a minimum security federal facility.

“By the time I went to prison I was financially depleted,” she says. “I currently live with my mom. I’m still without transportation.”

So the taxing and costly world of entrepreneurship might seem a surprising salvation.

Hodge—who at one time worked for the U.S. Department of Defense—entered prison in January 2007, originally sentenced to 87 months for mail fraud, interstate transportation of property obtained by fraud and money laundering. On appeal, her sentence was reduced to 70 months. Hodge’s time in the criminal justice system started in 2001, when Maryland state began investigating her for purportedly selling unregistered securities via a nonprofit she co-founded in 2000. In 2006, she was indicted at the federal level, and ultimately served 54 months of her sentence, and then six months in a halfway house in Washington, D.C., where she still resides, after her release on August 3, 2011.

Laurin Hodge, Teresa’s daughter, says that before her mother went to prison, she knew virtually nothing about the U.S. criminal justice system.

“Going through the process with her opened up our eyes,” Laurin says. “And prison and reentry are things that truthfully either you’re a saint to care about or you only care about unless it happens to you.”

Witnessing her mother’s struggles with the criminal justice system made Laurin think: how easy is it for ex-offenders to rejoin society after serving time?

“We began to see just the importance of strategy development and having a plan for people when they come back home,” she says. “That has nothing to do with a conversation of innocence or guilt.”

Laurin Hodge and Governor O’Malley

Enter Mission: Launch, a startup nonprofit of which Laurin is both co-founder and executive director.

A runner-up in Governor Martin O’Malley’s Pinterest business pitch contest this spring, Misson: Launch’s goal is three-fold: recruit ex-offenders leaving the prison system, pair them with mentors—business owners and entrepreneurs in Baltimore city—for skills training over a nine-month period and then ideally turn program participants into mentors for future ex-offenders, while providing them with seed funding to start businesses of their own.

An Uncommon Partnership

While Laurin serves as executive director of Mission: Launch, the idea for such a nonprofit was actually a collaboration with three others: her friend from Old Dominion University Amber Ivey, her mother Teresa and an inmate-friend of Teresa’s, Judy Quackenbush, who also served time at Alderson from October 2008 to February 2011 for an embezzlement misapplication of funds charge.

Quackenbush, 57, lives in Indianapolis with her daughter. Laurin, 27, splits her time between D.C., where she works full-time as a lab manager, and Baltimore, where she moved three years ago to finish a master’s degree in information systems at the Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business. Ivey, who is 28, is the owner of the clothing store Posh Retro in Federal Hill, scheduled to open early October.

In September, Quackenbush and Teresa will be the first ex-offenders to enter the pilot program of Mission: Launch.

They’ll work directly under the supervision of Ivey, who will be their mentors and coach each of them on how to incorporate and run a small business. (Ivey has owned Posh Retro since 2008, but just relocated the business to Baltimore in July.)

Ivey will work in concert with James Thompson, a 33-year-old Marine Corps veteran and owner of Coliseum Apparel in Washington, D.C. While she’ll work in-store with Teresa and via phone with Quackenbush on the front-end of her business, Thompson will introduce Teresa and Quackenbush to how clothing companies handle logistics and inventory.

Provided the pilot program succeeds, Laurin’s hope is to roll out the dual entrepreneurship-mentorship component of Mission: Launch to Baltimore city in spring 2013 and recruit between 10 and a dozen men and women from the city’s halfway houses. Each recruit would then undergo a job training regimen—resume writing, office etiquette, introductions to websites like Facebook and LinkedIn—before meeting with a potential entrepreneur-mentor.

The model she’s setting up, Laurin admits, will rely heavily on partnerships: clinical partners to ensure ex-offenders recruited to Mission: Launch are mentally and emotionally capable of becoming entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs in a variety of industries, including technology, to serve as mentors and funding from foundations and through grants to provide the seed funding for each ex-offender to start a business of their own once they finish Mission: Launch’s nine-month program.

“Entrepreneurship is a lifestyle choice, so it’s important for us to be working with people who really understand that they’re building something from the ground up,” Laurin says. “This is an opportunity for them to decide what type of life they want to live going forward.”

From Incarceration to Rehabilitation

“What you’re referred to for the rest of your life is an ex-felon, and depending on what you’re to do, it’s a conversation you have to have,” Teresa says.

She is actually one of the few fortunate ex-offenders—within 10 days of her release from prison, a friend of hers offered her a job as a paralegal. Quackenbush, too, was able to find work at an AT&T authorized retail store a friend owns in Indianapolis. But for many with a criminal record, the jobless rate hovers anywhere between 40 and 60 percent nationally, which has deleterious effects on ex-offenders’ ability to successfully reenter society upon leaving prison.

Since the early 1970s, the United States’ prison population has grown more than 700 percent. Today, some 2.4 million Americans are in prison, roughly half of them incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. Nearly 700,000 people are released from state and federal prisons each year, and according to an April 2011 report from the Pew Center on the States, more than 40 percent of that number are back in prison within three years, charged with a new offense or a violation of probation or parole. In Maryland alone, more than $830 million is spent on state prisons per year—that’s $38,000 per inmate, more than double the amount of money the state spends on each kid in its public schools.

Most notable about the Pew Center’s 2011 report? By cutting the recidivism rate—how quickly ex-offenders reenter the prison system—by just 10 percent, the 41 states that provided data for the report could save a combined $635 million in one year.

Without a job, recidivism rears its head.

Studies conducted by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research show that former inmates are less likely to end up behind bars again if they have jobs and steady paychecks.

“There’s no solution for people coming out,” says Ivey. “[Mission: Launch] is more about making sure everybody has a chance out here. For me, it’s about making sure we’re doing the right thing as a country.”

Baltimore city suffers prominently. Annually, more than 6,000 ex-offenders return to the city each year, only to find that a job—and the opportunity to avoid more prison time—is out of their grasp.

Some of the problem is a lack of knowledge about reentry programs and job assistance available to former inmates. To address this, Mission: Launch is setting up an online Wiki of Maryland and Washington, D.C., correctional education programs. Three American University graduate students are now building the website, which will eventually include information from every state.

“The Wiki is our big piece to bringing partners together,” says Laurin. “Ideally, we’ll have it categorized by state.”

Budding Entrepreneurs

“There isn’t a day go by that I don’t wish I would’ve made better choices,” says Quackenbush. “But I also have to realize … you can become a good, viable person after this happens to you, and that’s the only thing we want.”

At present, what Laurin ultimately wants for Mission: Launch still outstrips the capacity of its small volunteer staff and 10 members split between its board of advisers and board of directors. When the first class of Mission: Launch recruits have finished their mentorship program—which will probably be in early 2014—her goal is to have enough funding to provide each with less than $10,000 in seed money, in addition to a coworking space for their use.

Right now, she’s looking to set up partnerships with Baltimore organizations that already do job training for ex-offenders. “Partnerships are going to be the only way this actually works,” she says.

But solidifying the first step, showing ex-offenders that there is a community of people ready to assist them, is Laurin’s main priority.

“In the reentry community, one of the biggest barriers is not reconnecting,” she says. “If there’s anything this organization is about, it’s about helping people reconnect to a community that will be supportive of them.”

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Andrew Zaleski

Andrew Zaleski is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia and the former lead reporter for Technical.ly Baltimore. Before moving to Philadelphia in June 2014, he was a contributing writer to Baltimore City Paper and a Tech Check commentator for WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore city’s National Public Radio affiliate. He has written for The Atlantic, Outside, Richmond magazine, Washington City Paper, Baltimore magazine, Baltimore Style magazine, Next City, Grist.org, The Atlantic Cities, and elsewhere.

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  • Teresa

    Thank you for writing the article and advancing the conversation of prison re-entry. 

    Teresa