‘Prisonpreneur’: from cells to sales

MSR Editorial

By James Clingman

Guest Commentator


(This article is dedicated to the folks in jails and prisons. Please share it with them.)

According to the 13th Amendment, slavery in this country has not been fully abolished; there is an exception that says if one is duly convicted of a crime he or she can be enslaved.

Read it for yourself; don’t take my word for it. So, if you have been enslaved by either doing a crime or because you are in prison for something you did not do, why not learn how to turn your enslavement into a profit by studying to become a business owner? When you are released, you will have your business plan in hand, ready to meet the world of entrepreneurship head-on.

For two decades now I have written and spoken about that “exception” in the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and advocated a literal boycott of prisons, especially by Black men who make up a disproportionately high percentage of those incarcerated in this country. How do we boycott prisons? Just refrain from doing some of the stupid things we do that result in prison time.

It’s bad enough that we have many who have been wrongly convicted and incarcerated — why volunteer to be a slave? We cannot keep complaining about the “prison industrial complex” and refusing to do our part to put it out of business by abstaining from crime.

For those already imprisoned in what has become “Incarceration Nation,” why not use the time you have there to research ways in which you can make something or do something and sell it to someone?

A few years ago, I wrote an article titled, “Prison Profits.” Well, a profit can be generated by prisoners, a profit they can keep in their pockets rather than have it appear on some corporation’s profit and loss statement. If prisoners would build up their brains the way they build up their muscles, they would come out with a new skill set as well as a new body.

We can do as our ancestors did during their enslavement period in America. Many enslaved Africans became “Intrapreneurs,” as Juliet E.K. Walker describes in her book, The History of Black Business in America. Despite their lack of physical freedom, they leveraged their knowledge, and even their services in some cases, in exchange for a plot of land from which they could earn profits that would end up being used to purchase their freedom, and the freedom of others.

They did not succumb to the conditions under which they were held; they made the best of their negative situation by utilizing their time not only to obtain freedom, but also to be prepared for freedom when it came.

We all know it takes money to be free. God showed us that when He told the Israelites to go back and get treasure from Pharaoh. Check it out in Exodus 12, the first case of reparations in history. God knew they would need “money” when they secured their freedom.

We must learn from the past and use it to propel us forward to true economic freedom. While in jail and when released from jail, our brothers and sisters must change not only their behavior, but their attitude about business as well. All the excuses and reasons for crime notwithstanding, we know the system is against us, but many of us keep engaging it and repeating that process over and over again. Recidivism rates are around 60 percent after three years of incarceration.

We know there is a cause and effect relationship between poverty and crime, and to the degree that we can shift that equation to our advantage, by teaching our young children and teenagers entrepreneurship, and by starting and growing our own businesses, we should make every effort to do so. It is our responsibility to do what we can, to control what we can control, to stay out of prisons, and then to advocate for the kind of training in our schools that can at least provide the opportunity for business ownership among our youth.

I am going to make up another new word for this: “Prisonpreneur.” A recent CNN segment featured men at San Quentin becoming technology entrepreneurs while in prison, and getting great jobs when they were released. They were taught all the skills of owning a business while they were spending time incarcerated. What a novel idea, huh?

Well, it’s not novel at all, as I have just shown you with our enslaved ancestors, but now that CNN has lauded it, maybe it will take hold throughout the prison system population.

We need to stop being so hard-headed and make the appropriate changes necessary to control our own destiny, rather than turning it over to a prison system that is only interested in making a profit from the work we put in every day behind prison walls. The answer: Work for yourself not for the new slave master, the prison system. Be a Prisonpreneur.


James Clingman is the founder of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce and an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati.