In North Carolina over 70% of people finish their time in prison only to return within two years. Some of the main challenges that drive this high rate of recidivism are difficulty in finding employment and a lack of affordable housing. State governments know about these problems and have created many programs, but little improvement has been made.

Through Project Durham, students in Rosemary Fernholz’s Innovation and Policy Entrepreneurship course had the opportunity to find and recommend innovative solutions to the challenges facing persons coming out of prison. The students divided into eight teams to address three urgent, real-life policy challenges given by the Innovation Team of the City of Durham.

The Innovation Team asked: “How can Durham increase employment opportunities for residents with criminal records?”; “How can Durham decrease recidivism in our County Jail?”; and, “How can we help residents returning from state prison to connect with supportive services and find housing within a few weeks of return to Durham?” The students had to show how their proposed solutions could work within the context of Durham (even on a pilot basis). Students presented to Ryan Patrick Smith of the Durham Innovation Team, and Camille Warren, a program officer from Duke I&E. 

Dean Storelli, who served as an adviser on the project, was proud of their work. “On Tuesday, we saw what happens when Duke’s MIDP fellows put their minds to work analyzing the problem and recommending interventions. With just a few weeks of work, they got to core causes and systemic solutions that included secure tablets that can be used for job training for prisoners still in jail (with the option to hang onto these devices after their release), job fairs, a ‘one-stop-shop’ that allows these “returning citizens” to find resources, better ways to market current programs, tax incentives for employers and housing providers, new offices to oversee these efforts and “social impact” bonds as a way to pay for it all. The ideas generated were not just ‘ideas’ but included links to off-the-shelf resources, primary research among service providers, a robust (though still preliminary) website and, in some cases, the names of organizations that the fellows have already contacted and early offers from these organizations to pursue working together. Not bad outcomes for a class assignment!”

There are 19 students in the course from some 15 countries (from Afghanistan to the U.S.); they are from Duke graduate programs in Sanford (MIDP and MPP), Political Science, and Liberal Arts. 

Storelli concluded, “as an instructor, it was incredibly encouraging to see both the passion and the depth of expertise our fellows poured into this project. I am sure they learned a lot, and I also know – Ryan told us so – that many of their ideas will be making their way into the next round of discussion of Durham’s plans.”


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