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Ohio Former Inmates Look to Entrepreneurship as Path to Reentry

Most of the people locked up in Ohio’s prisons will spend less than a year behind bars -- and then they’ll have to go back out and find work. But ex-con Weslee Pullen of Columbus admits it’s tough to help employers see past a criminal past.

“I have to be able to present myself in a way where people can understand that everyone deserves a second chance," Pullen said. "What I did was not who I am -- it was a mistake. We all make mistakes.”

Vanita Nevis works with the state, and she’s developed a program she calls Reset, which she says helps former criminals change their presentation, their attitude and their behavior -- with one specific goal.

“When people get out of prison, they now have a record," Nevis said. "They’re a felon. They check that box. What happens? Employers will not hire them. They don’t -- they won’t do it, regardless of what the crime was. So I thought the alternative is, start your own business.”

Nevis and Pullen are now working together to teach Reset in some of Ohio’s prisons. And the program is working, says John Voorhies. He’s a professor at Zane State College in Zanesville, who’s also a counselor at one of the small business development centers where former inmates will come to work on their business plans.

“We’ve had people open up food carts, environmental agencies where they go out and actually work with individuals to develop their own gardening into urban and rural settings," Voorhies said. "We’ve got a lot of people opening up restaurants and food services, cleaning services, trucking services, the full gamut of small businesses.”

Nevis and Pullen admit that everyone’s not suited to be an entrepreneur, but they say the skills they teach can help former inmates figure out what employers are looking for and be better employees when they’re hired. That was true for Wendy Adcock of Columbus, who started Fusion Bakery Café after finding she couldn’t get hired when she was released from prison.

“I ran into that, and that was one of my major frustrations, which actually pushed me into starting my own business," Adcock said. "And oddly enough, after I started my own business, I ended up getting a job through catering.”

Adcock now works for a Columbus agency that helps ex-cons transition to life outside of prison.

The state is also helping former inmates by putting together an annual Restored Citizen Summit in Columbus. Some 20 community groups hold workshops and offer advice on finding financial resources for going back to school, paying for child support, getting back their driver’s licenses, and of course, securing that all-important job.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.