How Former Prison Inmates Are Taking Up the American Dream


When you think of the kind of person that has achieved the American Dream, who comes to mind? Bill Gates? Warren Buffet? Andrew Carnegie? Have you thought that maybe none of these people are the ones who have really achieved what the American Dream is really about? Social scientist Arthur Brooks believes our understanding of it is all wrong.

Based on his research and experiences, the ones who achieve the American Dream are not the ones who reach the stratosphere, the 0.0001%, but those who reach the middle class up from the bottom.

That is, the people who beat all the odds to live lives in which they earn their success and can provide for their families. These are the people who look like our ancestors, the ambitious riffraff who came to America not for fame and wealth, but simply for decent lives for themselves and their families.

And who are the ones who most exemplify the American Dream? In Brooks' opinion, it's those who end up in prison, but upon exiting bring themselves to a better life than they could have ever imagined.

Rehabilitation of criminals back into society is a laudable pursuit, but American society has had a great deal of trouble with achieving that. That statistics show a terribly bleak prognosis for anyone who ends up in prison even one time.

Men and women in America's prisons have the deck stacked completely against them once they finish their sentences. It's nearly impossible to get jobs, and re-entering their communities is just as difficult. More than 75 percent of formerly incarcerated Americans can't find jobs or have difficulty finding them after release, and the five-year recidivism rate stands at 76.6 percent. The odds of success in life after prison are slim.

It doesn't have to be that way though, and there are programs that offer models for our prisons to consider for rehabilitation and lowering the recidivism rate. One of those is being practiced right now down in Texas, and it has had a remarkable level of success.

One of my favorite programs along these lines is the Prison Entrepreneurship Program in Houston. Founded in 2004, it transforms the lives of inmates by "unlocking human potential through entrepreneurial passion, education and mentoring." Each participant completes a mini-MBA boot camp and is required to design a competitive business plan for an enterprise he will start after leaving prison.

While the recidivism rate is normally 70%, for those who go through PEP, it's a shockingly low 7%. While most don't end up carrying out their business ideas, they do get back to work when they are released from prison, and take up the responsibilities that bring happiness in life.

In Brooks' view, the American Dream is not about money, power, or fame, but about faith, family, community, and work. When prison inmates are taught to appreciate these areas of life, and invest in them, the results are truly amazing. Other prisons in America can build on this model, which will help to rebuild broken lives and homes in ways never previously seen.