LINCOLN — The scene felt like a corporate seminar aimed at pumping up the sales force to set quarterly records.
Spontaneous cheers and applause echoed off the cinder-block walls of the prison gymnasium. Participants exchanged high fives, handshakes and smiles. There was lots of laughter and even a little dancing as James Brown screamed “I Feel Good” on the loudspeaker.
It made what took place Thursday within the walls of the Nebraska State Penitentiary seem just a little surreal.
Nearly 80 inmates wearing tan dungarees stood on one side of the gym. Many are serving long sentences, some for violent crimes.
On the other side were business executives and charitable foundation representatives, a state senator and a former speaker of the Nebraska Legislature. They were among 38 volunteers who came to the medium-maximum security prison to help launch an innovative program that teaches convicts how to be entrepreneurs and wage-earners upon their release.
By the time Thursday’s four-hour event was over, both inmates and volunteers said they were hopeful that the program will help change the course of a prison system rocked in recent years by a deadly riot, overcrowding, mismanagement, and a series of violent attacks on correctional officers.
The Defy Ventures program, which currently trains about 1,600 inmates in New York and California, won’t cost Nebraska taxpayers anything, at least not yet. Charitable foundations will cover the $2.5 million cost of a three-year trial run, said Ken Stinson, chairman emeritus of Peter Kiewit Sons’ Inc., and the catalyst for bringing the program to Nebraska.
Stinson attended Thursday’s event along with staff of the Kiewit Foundation and Lozier Foundation. Others supporting the program are Rhonda and Howard Hawks, founder of Tenaska, and Bill Gerber, former chief financial officer at TD Ameritrade.
Catherine Hoke, founder and CEO of Defy Ventures, said her program has a proven track record of keeping 95 percent of its graduates out of prison for at least three years after their release. In Nebraska, about 30 percent of convicts return to lockup within the same period.
Hoke, who formerly worked in venture capital, said her approach succeeds by appealing to the risk-taking qualities inherent in both entrepreneurs and many who engage in criminal activity. The program connects inmates with volunteers who help them build the skills necessary to start a business or nail down a job — résumé writing, interviewing, communicating and organizing.
The program also offers support services to inmates once they are released to help them find and keep employment, Hoke said.
Stinson said Hoke approached him late last year seeking a donation. He in turn encouraged her to consider starting the program in Nebraska to help meet the need for effective prison programming. Ideally the program could also help the state’s economy by creating new businesses while helping current employers fill jobs.
“What we’re really talking about is not statistics, but helping people once they get out of prison to live productive, fulfilling lives,” Stinson said.
Scott Frakes, director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, said he strongly supports the program not only as a way to reduce recidivism, but hopefully to change the culture within the institution. Gov. Pete Ricketts said he hired Frakes from Washington state with the goal of “transforming the culture” throughout the Nebraska prison system.
“There hasn’t been this kind of energy, this kind of hope in this facility in a long time,” Frakes said.
The program also has been started at the Omaha Correctional Center. If it shows promise, the goal is to launch it in all of the state’s prisons, Frakes said.
He also said if Defy Ventures duplicates the success it’s had in other states, he will ask state lawmakers to fund the program long-term.
During Thursday’s event, Hoke referred to each inmate as an “EIT,” which stands for “entrepreneur in training.” In order to be accepted into the program, inmates will have to fill out a 12-page application and write a five-page essay.
Once they’re in, they will attend three hours of classes three times a week while completing additional assignments outside of class. And the program will seek to bring in additional volunteers from the community to help with life skills and employment coaching.
Since she started her nonprofit organization in 2010, Hoke said 150 graduates have started businesses. Many are modest, but she mentioned a former inmate from New York who started a fitness club that now employs a dozen people.
Inmate David W. Brown Jr. said he’s already come up with a pitch for a recycling business he wants to start for the purpose of employing ex-convicts.
“I start with bad attitudes but I recycle souls,” said the 55-year-old Omaha man, serving four to six years for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.
But Hoke warned the Nebraska inmates that they can’t hold out for their dream job once they are out. They have to get employed, stay employed and “make legal money for your families.”
A key element of the program’s success involves recruiting businesses and companies to hire ex-convicts. Hoke mentioned that she and her husband and business partner, Charles Hoke, have moved to Omaha to help oversee the program, and they will soon hire two staff members to help run the program in Nebraska.
On Thursday, she led communication exercises intended to help the volunteers see the inmates as people who made poor choices and bad mistakes. She said the program is based on the doctrine of second chances.
Hoke mentioned that her own experiences have helped fuel that belief.
She formerly ran a similar prison entrepreneurship program in Texas but was forced to resign after having “inappropriate relationships” with several former inmates after they were released from prison. Hoke has said she made “poor decisions” at a time when she was going through a divorce.
During Thursday’s event, nearly all of the minority inmates in attendance said they have experienced racism. Most of the 79 inmates also said they came from broken homes or were abused as children. Some said they have been shot or stabbed.
Most said they never thought they would live past the age of 21. And most said they have children on the outside.
Several of the volunteers said the event was much different from they had expected. Mike Flood of Norfolk, an attorney who formerly served as speaker of the Legislature, said hearing the inmates describe challenges in their lives was a humbling experience.
“They have hopes and dreams just like everybody else,” he said.
State Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, a member of the Judiciary Committee, which deals with the Corrections Department, also participated in Thursday’s event. She said she thinks the program has the potential to do good things.
Inmate Odies Scott, 55, of Omaha said he felt uplifted by having people on the outside actually listening to him, maybe seeing him as something other than a criminal. A repeat offender, Scott said he’s motivated to break the cycle when he gets out after serving four to five years for false imprisonment.
“Right now, all these guys are believing in themselves again,” he said.