08/19/2011 08:33 am ET Updated Oct 19, 2011

How and Why I Teach in Prisons, Part Two

This is the second installment in a four-part series. Read part one here.

Rather than allow prison life to define him, Joe Robinson began a long journey of deep reflection, which evolved into self-discovery. To shore up his innate business skills and feed his interest in entrepreneurship, Joe began reading everything he could get his hands on about personal finance and business. He explained in his letter that he even traded cigarettes for books in order to build his own business library. In 1995, Joe began formally teaching personal finance classes.

In 2007, Joe wrote Think Outside the Cell: An Entrepreneur's Guide for the Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated, and he is currently writing a memoir about the effects of crack addiction on his mother and family. Quiet and strong, Joe has as much leadership ability as anyone I ever met. I would follow him anywhere.

I had developed some expertise teaching in the prison environment after Jesse's tragedy -- spending over 300 hours instructing in a program run by John Jay College at Riker's Island, and another 200 hours at the Ogden Youth Home in Newark for children that had broken the law.

This June 26th -- after a month of planning -- Sheila Rule, Joe's wife, and I drove upstate to the Sullivan Correctional Facility near Fallsburg, in upstate New York. Sheila was at the New York Times for 30 years as a senior editor and met Joe through her church's Prison Ministry. They have been married six years and are true partners in life.

Joe and his team had selected a number of inmates to train in the basics of financial literacy who would then teach the subject to the others. David Berkowitz, the notorious "Son of Sam" killer in the late 1970s was one of the inmates selected. It took several years to discover it, but the breakthrough concept of this program was that the prisoners would impart this knowledge of entrepreneurship to their visiting families -- their children, nieces and nephews.

A sad fact of prison life is that within three years of entry a majority of prisoners have no contact with the outside world; they lose all connection with their families. Joe's idea was to create a strategy for helping inmates reengage with their relatives, particularly their children. Hopefully it would make them more likely to build the kind of support system needed to reintegrate into their communities.

So who are these men and why are they here? There are 570 men in Sullivan serving sentences of over 20 years, overseen by highly trained guards. None of the guards is armed although there is a SWAT team standing by 24 hours a day. The guards do not smile or act friendly - they are outnumbered and there are some really dangerous criminals there. The wardens, guards, and other prison personnel are highly qualified and professional.

There are 2.3 million individuals imprisoned in the United States; we have the highest incarceration rate per capita in the world. Blacks and Hispanics make up 1.4 million of this number. Seventy percent of the men released from prison will be locked up again within two years. When a man is released he is given 40 dollars and a bus ticket to the city in which he was arrested. No one is released until a shelter is found to which he can be sent. Men without strong family and religious ties, and a skill, will almost always be sent back to jail.

This tragic situation costs our nation hundreds of billions of dollars in lost wages as well as incalculable human suffering. After 18 years of reading letters from prisoners (I have received over 10,000) and at least 25 visits to maximum security prisons, these are my conclusions: The majority of young men are in prison because of the drug industry. The typical prisoner sold illegal drugs, although pimping for prostitutes and car theft are also common. Being in the underground economy means no legal contracts, so everything is enforced through violence, threatened or actual. When there is a conflict between two men over money, one of them often kills or maims the other. What would be normal competitive issues in the mainstream world are settled by blood in the drug business.

The seller that does well exaggerates the quality of his product and badmouths his competition. Soon he becomes the object of jealousy and resentment; this leads to beatings and killings. Another common issue is a dispute over money around questions of inventory. When a drug dealer feels he had been cheated by another dealer, it almost always leads to violence. Lost or stolen drugs will also lead to conflict and killings. As a business, it is hell on earth.

Then why do young men go into the drug industry? Foremost is a lack of vision. Often these individuals do not see themselves as having a life worth living so they will jeopardize it for quick money. Many times they have lost interest in school or come from broken families. Many come from foster-care homes. Their role models are older men that sell drugs and appear wealthy and successful and self-employed. Almost always they do not have a relationship with their father and these self-employed drug dealers become their role models. Essentially, the drug industry provides them with a family and with love and support that they do not have at home. Just as important, it is a way to enter the business word and make money.

Another major reason is boredom. I remember when I was teaching at Ogden, I asked the residents why they had been selling drugs and stealing cars. At least seven out of ten said it was because they were bored. In one sad case, eight of them had been arrested at once for dealing drugs. It seems that they had been playing basketball every night and staying out of trouble, but the playground was closed because of complaints about the noise. Within a day and on the same block they all went into the drug business.

Read part three here.