Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Prison Entrepreneurship Program at Cleveland Correctional Facility. “PEP”, as it is called, is an in-prison nonprofit focused on preparing inmates who are nearing release with the skillset and network they need to make it when they return to their communities. Anyone with the slightest hesitation of a person’s ability to reform needs to visit the Cleveland Unit or Estes Unit where this program is housed and meet the souls who are disproving that misconception.
I’ve been on prison visits before, but not many of them started with a line of smiling inmates (participants) greeting you as Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic plays in the background. From the moment I stepped in, I knew this wasn’t the average reform program.
The men we met not only greeted everyone with a smile and firm-handshake, but they said your name, looked you in the eyes, and showed genuine appreciation for being in attendance.
By all standards, the program is remarkably successful and is a model that should be replicated.
I was told that 75% of the program’s staff are graduates themselves, but unless they told you who they were you would never guess.
2,000 men have gone through the program and they recently completed their first class of 34 women. Over 300 businesses have been started by graduates of the program.
A volunteer I met started attending after seeing the impact PEP had on her son who now owns and operates his own car service business in Houston. Another graduate owns a printing company, and another a fencing company. This is just a sample of the more than 300 businesses that have been started by former participants after their release. Many of the volunteers have even hired companies started by the graduates.
The nine-month program focuses on every aspect required to rebuild these individuals. Participants go through life-skills training, business development, and a business plan competition and graduation ceremony. Instead of a hand-out, PEP participants receive and hand-up.
The class I attended was the PEP “Pitch Day.” The volunteers, numbering about 100 fellow business owners, were broken up into panels of six, whereby the program participants pitched their business plans to us shark-tank style. Volunteers provided feedback, revised, edited, and helped refine the business plans. Every critique was taken graciously with a “thank you” and a smile.
The business plan competition isn’t just a feel-good-measure, it’s an intensive program developed by the Baylor Hankhamer School of Business which awards the participants with Certificates of Entrepreneurship upon graduation. As an attorney whose firm specializes in start-ups and small businesses, these men presented plans that were more developed, more viable, and presented in a better fashion than most plans I have seen in the “outside world.”
What’s even more remarkable about the PEP program is that it doesn’t end after the participants are released.
Upon release, the inmates are given the opportunity to move to one of the program’s transition houses to aid their reentry. The houses are a structured environment which provides the entrepreneurs with a support system specifically designed for their needs, and also gives them the freedom they need to become the men they are now destined to be.
PEP, which again is entirely privately funded, not only provides a benefit to the participants and volunteers, PEP benefits taxpayers and society, as well. When touting the successes of the program, we were told that every single graduate over the last seven years has been hired within 90 days of release.
Many ex-offenders recidivate because of the long amount of time it takes to find work post-incarceration. But PEP graduates recidivate at roughly 7% after 3 years—far below the state and national averages.
The cost of recidivism is something we can’t ignore.
To house an inmate in our prisons, taxpayers shell out roughly $50.79 per day, that’s about $20,000 annually. Each new state prison bed costs $60,000 to build. The costs to incarcerate are high and if we can provide a new pathway for ex-offenders with an investment in their future, it’s more than worth it.
Ex-offenders often reoffend for financial reasons. A criminal record prevents or delays them from gainful employment so they turn to what they know. By providing alternatives, an opportunity to for these men and women to not just earn an income, but build a business and a new life for themselves, their families, and their communities we can continue to address crime and incarceration costs.
While I entered Prison Entrepreneurship Program knowing of the need for prison and reentry reform, I was blown away by what I saw and experienced while behind those walls. I encourage everyone to take the time, even if you only do it once, to volunteer at one of their units and experience the unprecedented work of PEP.