Prisons and Social Enterprise: Getting Out and Staying Out

August, 1972: The Vietnam War is raging. Stopped by two Marine MPs, I slowly drive past the 4-foot thick, concrete walls of the Portsmouth Naval Disciplinary Command, a huge castle-like prison facility set on an island, across the harbor in Kittery, Maine.

My assignment: Restore the mental health and kill, forever, the heroin addiction of 474 men from Vietnam, now serving time.

I discovered something in this Naval brig: Prisons could actually work.

And, not as they're designed today. Intelligent confinement can serve, more often than not, the purpose of returning productive and effective human beings to society. I assert that only a small percentage of inmates (20 percent) need to be incarcerated over a long period of time (more than 10 years). Specifically, men (the vast majority of incarcerated people are currently men -- yet this article applies to women, as well) can, in fact, serve time and learn the mindsets, skill sets and tool sets that enable them to return to the outside and be effective:

  • Employees, or entrepreneurs (which many are suited for);
  • Taxpayers and citizens;
  • And generate responsible, loving relationships -- including becoming and being the fathers that essentially 100 percent of them never fully experienced.

Today, at Getting Out and Staying Out, where I serve as the co-chair of the Board of Directors, we are reducing the recidivism rate of men (measured as returning to prison within three years of release) at Rikers Island, New York City, from 60-plus percent to under 20 percent, with more than 1,200 men over eight years.

Rikers Island houses some 12,000-plus men for New York City for two purposes:

1. They are being held until they are tried and adjudicated. If they are sentenced for over a year, they are held until they are sent Upstate; or
2. They are being sentenced for a crime committed in New York City and are serving one year, or less, at Rikers.

What Works? Observation:

My clinical observation, as a trained and licensed mental health clinician, is that a high percentage of men that are incarcerated have a seriously broken relationship with their father. This is based on the corrections research on father/son impacts on criminal behavior, and thousands of my professional observations with hundreds of incarcerated men over 40 years, in both maximum and medium, military and civilian, prisons.

If you take a young man who has a weak, negative or zero relationship with his father, and you then add the flood of hormones that kicks in at 16 (+/-), low to no interest or success in school, a culture of action ("in the streets") and low resources, you then get a readiness to take a chance at what we call crime.

Committing crime can occur as very, very exciting and as a shortcut to the very, very big time. Testosterone kicks in beautifully in the face of high risk and sets up drug use nicely.

In Getting Out and Staying Out, as in other programs committed to effective incarceration (such as Bridges to Life, developed by John Sage in Texas, whose response to his sister's murder was to create a program for transforming thousands of prisoner lives), we take the stand that men, when given the stable, smart, savvy, committed presence of an adult mentor, coach or teacher (men and women) can turn their lives around. Rapidly. They get a GED (General Equivalency Diploma) that certifies a successful completion of high school; they get basic life planning, work, relationship planning, communications training. They confront, through coaching conversations, what they've done: they tell the truth about it, and they put their past in their past. They practice, ongoingly, recognizing past behavior as past behavior. They take their past out of their future. They start, step by step by step, to "get," to learn, to put the principles and practices in place that allow for the basis of a life well lived -- being on time, being healthy, being respectful, working hard, learning new skill sets, developing new mindsets and honoring others.

KA-CHING: The Cash Register

Mark Goldsmith (, the founder of Getting Out and Staying Out, and Paul Gutkowski, his associate executive director, have an office at East 116th St., and they are open for business.

Open for business? Yes, Getting Out and Staying Out provides the work ethic, the accountability, the winning spirit of private enterprise that goes beyond and yet complements the huge, expensive and very costly correctional bureaucracies in the U.S. ($85 billion -- that's billion with a B! -- a year). Do the math:

• If Getting out and Staying Out reduces the recidivism of 1200 men from 60 percent (60 percent of 1200 is 720 men a year) to 20 percent (240 men), that is a difference of 480 men/lives per year.
• 480 men x $168,000 (average incarceration cost per year in New York City) = $80.6 million reduced corrections cost.
• If only 50 percent of those 480 men who are now back in life, rather than incarcerated, pay only $2,000 per year in taxes, that's yet another $480,000 saved.

Even if we were to discount for reasons of self-selection, 50 percent of the graduates, given one could argue that the more motivated inmates choose GOSO, that still leaves a program with an annual savings of $40 million (!) to the New York City Correctional Department. This is currently accomplished with less than a $1 million a year. (i.e. 40-1 or 4000 percent ROI)

Anything else in government (or the private sector, for that matter) returning that kind of investment that you know of?

This return on investment analysis does not include detail on the further legal costs... The tens of thousands of dollars of tax-payer legal costs... (such as for both prosecution and defense costs) required for future incarcerations. It, also, does not include the very real social, family and personal impacts that follow a re-arrest.

In an era of ever-tight municipal budgets, Getting Out and Staying Out "writes," in effect, a check to the City of New York for more than $40 million a year in savings, every year. And: The Getting Out and Staying Out's budget is in the six-figures (currently under $1 million).

Bottom line: A dollar invested returns 4,000 percent per year! Compare that investment with your stocks, bonds or real estate. The payoff, of course, is to you and me as taxpayers, and to us as human beings.

In the larger context, one can consider that there may be no social issue, perhaps not a single one, that cannot be resolved and sustained if the accountability, initiative and spirit of business, of social enterprise -- well organized, well aimed, well supported -- takes it on. Other examples and models of "social enterprise"... large social issues addressed through rigorous business models... are KIPP and a number of the Charter Schools in Education; The Hunger Project, in dealing with the hunger of the poorest women in the world; and the cost-effectiveness initiatives of the Mayo Clinic and Kaiser Permanente in health care.

For big, hairy, public issues, social enterprise has terrific application to resolving these issues. Social enterprise operates independent of, and complementary to, government bureaucracies. They are based on the action, initiative and accountability of a business model: Real targets in real time with real impact providing demonstrable returns-on-investment. One related financial tool regarding social enterprise that has emerged from this business-oriented approach is social impact bonds (SIBs) and social entrepreneurship where profit, and actual capital creation apply (see Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship; Fuqua School of Business, Duke University).

Social enterprise, whether not-for-profit or strictly capitalist, is run as a business: It is based on a mission; has a stated and clear vision of the future to be realized; and is specifically clear on the values it stands for. At the same time it operates as a b-u-s-i-n-e-s-s model with financial, human, operational and learning objectives. Revenue, profit (even if for re-investment), strategy, operations, projects, targets, "sales" and "marketing," capital deployed, action, real time teamwork, measure its effectiveness.

Getting Out and Staying Out is one vivid demonstration with a critical breakdown in our society: correcting criminal behavior. (The USA incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. 7 million-plus people are incarcerated, or on parole or probation). A key element of the GOSO mission is to cause and deliver a documented, "drastic reduction of recidivism of men 18 to 24" through education, coaching, and re-entry services.

Social enterprise, even more widely employed, can be directed toward our big, hairy, public issues like

• employment/employability;
• integrating immigrants as full contributors;
• developing cleaner (clean) energy systems now;
• competitive yet innovative schools; and
• developing political action models to restore fiscal integrity (see Erskine and Bowles commission to address the federal budget).

Social enterprises are already here, to stay. (See Ashoka for social enterprise across all sectors.)

So the question is: Where are you?