A new program has launched at the Nebraska State Penitentiary aimed at turning hardened criminals into productive citizens who never return to prison again.
A spirited group of about 70 inmates at the maximum prison in Lincoln greeted the volunteers Thursday who are the backbone of Defy Ventures’ character and employment development program devised by CEO Catherine Hoke who says the hustle which landed these men in prison can be turned into entrepreneurship.
“Especially for people at this prison here, who have been incarcerated for a long time, it takes a lot of courage to change,” Hoke told reporters after the launch ceremony at NSP. “It’s really easy to give up on yourself and to accept just doing time and doing crime as your life, because for the most part that’s what’s been handed down for them from one generation to another.”
Defy Ventures began in the New York prison system and expanded to California. It calls those inmates enrolled in the program Entrepreneurs in Training. It has more than 1,600 nationally both inside prison walls and outside. Defy has recruited 3,500 volunteers across the country, including business professional who can provide business coaching and employment mentoring, but perhaps most importantly, a shot at a job upon release.
Defy bills itself as an entrepreneurship, employment and character development program.
Defy’s move into Nebraska came after Hoke made a telephone call to former Kiewit Construction CEO Ken Stinson, who said he believes Hoke was calling to ask for a donation. Stinson suggested Defy come to Nebraska.
Stinson has become a volunteer, taking part Thursday in a number of exercises intended not just to prepare inmates for a job after they serve their time, but to turn their lives around.
“That’s what we’re really talking about,” Stinson said. “It isn’t about statistics. It’s about people getting out of prison and living full and productive lives.”
Stinson said donors have pledged $2 ½ million to fund the program for the remainder of this year and for the next three years. It is underway at the Nebraska State Prison as well as the Omaha Correctional Center.
Initially, about 120 NSP inmates expressed interest in the program. Some already have dropped out, leaving about 70. They must complete a 15-page application and write a 5-page essay before being accepted. About 60 inmates are participating in Omaha.
Most inmates are enthusiastic, David Brown is hopeful.
“As long as the people that’s running this program are not conning the inmates it’ll work, because the inmates are going to know if they are conning them.”
AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [1:12]