You might think Bill Dunn Sr., who heads up one of the nation’s largest prison builders, is trying to undo a part of the family business by starting a jobs program for ex-cons.

Yet Dunn, 86, whose firm has been successful at building around 50 jails in the last 10 years, is troubled deeply by the prison system’s burden on society. “We felt that maybe we had an obligation to help people who needed a chance,” says the chairman emeritus of Kansas City, Mo.-based JE Dunn Construction.

Bill Dunn Sr. Je Dunn
Building prisons, he says, costs $50,000 to $100,000 per cell.
—Bill Dunn Sr. Je Dunn

In 2008, Dunn donated $300,000 to start a program called Second Chance, a coalition of about 100 local agencies dedicated to fighting recidivism rates, which average between 50% and 60% in the area. Last month, Dunn received a national award for his charitable contributions to re-entry programs and felon-friendly hiring practices.

“[He took] the extra step when he didn’t really need to,” says Barry C. Mayer, vice president of the Kansas City Metropolitan Crime Commission, which runs Second Chance. In the last 18 months, the program has identified hiring gaps and organized policy changes, such as recently helping area offenders get restaurant jobs by relaxing liquor laws. This summer, it plans to work directly with former inmates by educating and supporting the highest-risk offenders, whose recidivism rate soars above 80%.

“Because these people are totally unemployable, they are at a high risk to reoffend,” says Mayer. “It can be a natural fit,” Dunn says, explaining how construction may benefit from this labor pool.