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There are less than 8 hours left for you to support PEP through North Texas Giving Day!!
To give a donation, click here.
Thank you in advance for your gift!
After year in jail, former State Senator condemns mass incarceration.
The first time Jeff Smith appeared on the national radar, he was the subject of the critically acclaimed documentary, “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?,” which chronicled his 2004 campaign for the congressional seat of the retiring Dick Gephardt. Smith narrowly lost the race to Russ Carnahan, but his surprising performance in a crowded field of 10 made him a rising star in Missouri Democratic politics. Smith was elected state senator in 2006 and served until 2009, when he pleaded guilty to conspiracy for an election law violation tied to the 2004 campaign. Smith was sentenced to one year and a day in a Kentucky federal prison. He chronicles his experience in his new book, “Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis,” which he calls “a scathing indictment of a system that teaches prisoners to be better criminals instead of better citizens.” We speak with Smith, now an assistant professor of urban policy at The New School, about what he learned in prison and his thoughts about criminal justice reform.
Read the rest of the transcript here.
Check out our most recent write-up in the Houston Forward Times! Read the full story here.
Who really believes in giving second chances to someone who is already considered a failure?
Many people wonder about today’s society. Most do not think someone in an unfortunate circumstance could make the most of a chance they are given. Is opportunity only for the more fortunate citizens of the United States of America or can anyone rebound after getting knocked down?
Not many people can honestly say they believe in that today. However, this is not the case for the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP).
The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) is a Houston-based 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization that was established in 2004. At PEP, they are servant leaders on a mission to transform inmates to executives by unlocking human potential through entrepreneurial passion, education and mentoring. Their groundbreaking results include a return-to-prison rate of less than 7%, an employment rate of 100% within 90 days of release and over 185 businesses launched by graduates of the program. They have pioneered innovative programs that connect the nation’s top executives, entrepreneurs and MBA students with convicted felons.
PEP’s team knows from experience that prison is a storehouse of untapped potential. Many inmates come to prison as seasoned entrepreneurs who happened to run illegitimate businesses. Once equipped with education and life skills training, the ROI potential for the truly reformed prisoner, his family and his community is limitless.
Charles Hearne is the Houston Executive Relations Manager for PEP, and believes the program continues to make a great impact in our communities.
“Our entrepreneurship boot camp and re-entry programs, which include spiritual and character development courses, are proven for maximizing self-sufficiency and transforming broken lives,” said Hearne.
Former Wall Street professional Catherine Rohr founded PEP in May of 2004 after she toured a prison and noticed that executives and inmates had more in common than most would think. They know how to manage others to get things done.
Rohr wondered what would happen if inmates who were committed to their own transformation were equipped to start and run legitimate companies. Following an unusual calling, Rohr left behind her New York career and financial stability, moved to Texas started a one-of-a-kind “behind bars” business plan competition. Her efforts were geared toward channeling the entrepreneurial passions and influential personalities of the inmates—intentionally recruiting former gang leaders, drug dealers and hustlers.
She quickly realized the entrepreneurial ability of the men inside of those prisons and wanted a way to show how successful those men could be on the other side if they were cultivated correctly.
Even the most unsophisticated drug dealers inherently understand business concepts such as competition, profitability, risk management and proprietary sales channels. For both executives and inmates, passion is instinctive.
The overwhelming response of 55 inmates and 15 world-class executives to judge the business plans and presentations was the catalyst to launch the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.
While Rohr resigned in 2009, the organization has continued to grow and prosper. PEP now graduates more men than ever before, and the results are better than ever and remain the best in the prison rehabilitation field.
PEP has been picking up steam and has come a long way since 2004. Although based in Cleveland, TX, PEP is associated with prisons in other states that have embraced this revolutionary idea.
“The goal is to affect the tipping point in Texas prisons,” said Hearne. “About 43,000 men are released throughout the year in Texas prisons. We want to be in a situation where we are affecting about 10 percent of those men. So essentially we want to affect about 4,300 men a year.”
PEP has only two units and roughly graduates 300 men per year. Although they have not fully met their target goal, they are getting closer.
Many of the men who go through PEP have amazing ideas. Some have wanted to open meat markets, while others have wanted to open pool companies.
“Some of the men have actually owned businesses before and already have legitimate business knowledge,” said Hearne. “Those men would take their own business plan, revamp it and use that information and knowledge to build a business they already had information on.”
PEP has established more than 200 different businesses, and of those 200, at least 6 of them will be performing at the million dollar revenue range by the end of the year.
A true testimony on how PEP has helped different individuals get up after being knocked down in life is Hearne, who not only serves as the Executive Relations Manager, but is also a former participant in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.” said Hearne. “I’ve been out of the program for a little more than two years and I’d already made up my mind after I got incarcerated that the things I was doing wasn’t working for me. So it was time to have a change of heart, a change of surroundings and do things differently. Being a part of PEP set me on a trajectory faster than what I could have accomplished on my own. In the 2 ½ years I have been out, I have completed about 5 semesters of college and will be graduating next spring. I have given back to the community in different ways, such as community engagement and volunteer services. I have become a true contributor to society by way of Prison Entrepreneurship Program.”
PEP is an outstanding program that has directly and indirectly helped thousands of lives every year since it was established.
If you are looking for more information, or if you know someone who could use helpful information about this program, please visit http://www.PEP.org to learn more about the program.
The Prison Entrepreneurship Program has proven that everyone deserves a second chance, and more importantly, you should never judge a book by its cover.
Hopefully you know by now that you are only allowed four visits to prison before TDCJ Volunteer Training is required. Following are a few TDCJ Volunteer Training dates for both the Houston and Dallas areas over the next several weeks. If you aren’t trained, please make an effort to become trained and be sure to let us know when you complete the course so we can track your visits appropriately and stay in the good graces of our hosts.
Saturday, August 15 – from 9A-1P at True Love Christian Church
40 Wilson Road, Humble, TX 77338
Phone 281 454 5036
Saturday, August 15 and Saturday, September 19 from 9A-1P at the Carol Vance Unit
2 Jester Rd, Richmond, TX 77469
Call to confirm training is still on and there’s room for you … 281 340 8729
Saturday, September 12 from Noon-4P at The Crowne Plaza Suites Hotel
9090 SW Freeway, Houston, TX 77074
(Main Ballroom – Ask Hotel Staff)
Saturday, August 22 from 10A-2P at Concord Church
6808 Pastor Bailey Drive, Dallas, TX 75237
Call to confirm that training is still on and there’s room for you … 214 300 1183, the contact is Thomas Wattley
Tuesday, September 8 from 6-10P at Hutchins State Jail
1500 East Langdon Road, Dallas, TX 75241
Call to confirm training is still on and there’s room for you … 972 225 1304
Obama administration plans a 3- to 5-year test to see if college classes help reduce prison recividism. Read the full Wall Street Journal article here.
The Obama administration plans to restore federal funding for prison inmates to take college courses, a potentially controversial move that comes amid a broader push to overhaul the criminal justice system.
The plan, set to be unveiled Friday by the secretary of education and the attorney general, would allow potentially thousands of inmates in the U.S. to gain access to Pell grants, the main form of federal aid for low-income college students. The grants cover up to $5,775 a year in tuition, fees, books and other education-related expenses.
Prisoners received $34 million in Pell grants in 1993, according to figures the Department of Education provided to Congress at the time. But a year later, Congress prohibited state and federal prison inmates from getting Pell grants as part of broad anticrime legislation, leading to a sharp drop in the number of in-prison college programs. Supporters of the ban contended federal aid should only go to law-abiding citizens.
Between the mid-1990s and 2013, the U.S. prison population doubled to about 1.6 million inmates, many of them repeat offenders, Justice Department figures show. Members of both parties—including President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky—have called for a broad examination of criminal justice, such as rewriting sentencing guidelines.
A 2013 study by the Rand Corp. found that inmates who participated in education programs, including college courses, had significantly lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who didn’t.
Some congressional Democrats have proposed lifting the ban. Meanwhile, administration officials have indicated they would use a provision of the Higher Education Act that gives the Education Department the authority to temporarily waive rules, such as the Pell-grant ban, as part of an experiment to study their effectiveness.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch are expected to announce the program, which likely would last three to five years to yield data on recidivism rates, at a prison in Jessup, Md., on Friday. Key details aren’t yet clear, such as which institutions and what types of convicts would be allowed to participate.
An Education Department spokeswoman declined to comment. Asked Monday whether the agency would restore Pell grants for prisoners, Mr. Duncan told reporters, “Stay tuned.”
Stephen Steurer, head of the Correctional Education Association, an advocacy group, said two Education Department officials told him at a conference early this month the agency was moving to restore Pell grants for prisoners and allow many colleges and universities to participate. Money from the grants would directly reimburse institutions for the cost of delivering courses in prisons rather than go to prisoners, Mr. Steurer said.
“It will be substantial enough to create some data and to create enough information for some evaluation,” said Rep. Danny Davis (D., Ill.), who is co-sponsoring a bill with Rep. Donna Edwards (D., Md.) to permanently restore Pell grants for prisoners.
“I think the political landscape has actually changed since the 1990s,” said Ms. Edwards. “We haven’t really been able to get a handle on recidivism. We have to present some training and opportunities. These are programs that work.”
She said her bill would cost relatively little up front—in the tens of millions of dollars—while having the potential to cut societal costs over the long term by reducing recidivism rates. Maryland spends nearly $40,000 a year per prisoner, she said.
But spending tax dollars on college for prisoners strikes many as an affront to families that have borrowed heavily in recent years to cope with skyrocketing college costs, causing student debt to soar to $1.3 trillion. “If we really want to keep people out of prison, we need to promote education at younger ages,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R., N.Y.).
Last year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo tabled a plan to use state dollars on in-prison college courses because of opposition from lawmakers. But in California, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation in June that includes $12 million to promote statewide priorities, including college classes in state prison, said state Sen. Loni Hancock, whose 2014 bill paved the way for an agreement between California corrections officials and the chancellor of the state’s community colleges. Ms. Hancock said classes could begin as soon as this fall.
The administration’s plan could open the White House to new charges that it is subverting the will of Congress. The administration has been criticized for using executive powers to change immigration policy.
There are currently a limited number of college courses for prisoners that draw mostly on private funding, Mr. Steurer said. Federal funding would expand opportunities for people like Wesley Caines, 49, who left a New York prison in the spring of 2014 after serving more than two decades on a murder charge.
While incarcerated at Hudson County Correctional Facility, he used a privately funded program to earn an associate degree, then a bachelor’s and a master’s, after studying the work of Nietzsche and W.E.B. Du Bois. He’s now working for a Brooklyn firm helping other ex-offenders re-enter society. “Prison is perhaps one of the most dehumanizing environments that any human being could find themselves in,” he said. “One of the best ways to make transformative gains is to be educated. It’s not an abstract thing, it’s a very tangible thing. It teaches you critical thinking. It allows you to look at yourself, your choices, your behavior, and the consequences of them.”
Houston timber company, Building Products Plus, has had great success hiring PEP graduates. Read the full PR Underground article here.
Building Products Plus, a Houston-based company that manufactures and supplies extended life structural building materials, has found success in hiring employees through the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, (PEP). Having hired seven program graduates within the last year, the company’s President, Dorian Benn, is “more than pleased” with the results of these employees. Of the seven BPP hired during the last year, five have stayed and made a real difference both in their own lives and as employees.
The PEP Program
The PEP program operates in 60+ prisons in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, with all operations based out of the Cleveland Correctional Center. In 2013 Baylor University researchers conducted a study of PEP’s results vs other similar programs in Texas. PEP outperformed the other nine rehabilitation programs’ recidivism rates by 70%.
While program members must complete and present a business plan, including a multi-year financial plan, in order to graduate, they do not have to start the business once released. They are encouraged to find employment using the skills and knowledge obtained while in the program, and that might not always be by starting their own business.
Bert Smith, CEO of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program is proud to report that since the program began 11 years ago, 185 graduates of the 1100 total have started businesses. Of those 185, four of those business are forecasted to gross $1 million, each, this year alone, as well as creating 25 jobs, combined. “Don’t judge the man by the label. Never assume he’s not capable of living a different life.” Smith says.
An “Attitude of Gratitude”
Building Products Plus is certainly an advocate for this program. They have an “attitude of gratitude” says Benn, “I don’t look at them any differently. They needed a job, we had an opening. They are grateful and eager to succeed. It’s a better life.”
One such program graduate, Rocky Arnold, was hired as a Mill Coordinator over a year ago. Since then he has been promoted to Mill Supervisor, and then to Operations Manager. He often returns to the program he is immensely thankful for and mentors those still going through the program. BPP has hired all ranges of program graduates from truck drivers to salesmen. Their training and experiences from previous jobs and education combined with life skills and spiritual connections made in the PEP are key ingredients for their success.
Smith states that there aren’t any official partnerships with specific businesses, “just good relationships forged by the graduates themselves,” which appears to work well. Based on the success of the employees at Building Products Plus, Benn intends to remain an active business partner of the PEP, and adds “The program shows them that they can have a better life. They can succeed honestly and with hard work their reintegration isn’t nearly as scary or unsure. They have a solid base and support. We’re happy we found them.”
My name is Jason and I was asked to write about my experience with PEP. When considering how a program has changed your life, it is easy to get caught up in the rites and rituals and begin to think of that program, any program, as a series of steps to be taken to reach a goal.
To me, PEP is so much more than that. To be sure, there are procedures and there are rites of passage, but I cannot look at these as mere steps; they are tools to be used, remembered, called upon in times of need, and passed on to those who come after us. PEP is a living, breathing entity embodied by the men trying to change their lives, the PEP staff, and the volunteers that offer so much encouragement.
I joined the Navy at 18, straight out of high school, and thought that I had the world pretty much figured out. The problem was that there was one thing I did not completely understand; I had no real idea of who I was. I allowed myself to be defined by the people around me and when I did not fit in with them, a few drinks made everything go a little more smoothly. I had no intention of becoming an alcoholic, but then who does?
Fast forward a couple of decades and my life was in shambles. I had spent the greater part of my adult life either on a barstool, recovering from my last hangover, or planning my next one. I knew my life was wasted and going nowhere, but I had no earthly idea how to change it, so I took the easy way and did nothing to make any improvements whatsoever. Like alcoholics the world over, I hid in a bottle and perpetuated my downward spiral.
I had never thought of myself as someone who would end up in prison and I certainly never saw incarceration as any kind of rescue. Like most of society, I viewed the penal system as a way to deal with people who did not want to play by the rules. Also like most of society, I was blind to my own hypocrisy and ignored the fact that I was no paragon of virtue.
Because of my continued alcohol abuse, I quickly learned how easily one can be sucked in and spit out by the judicial system. I also learned there is hope for everyone, no matter if they are locked in a cell by the state or locked into a pattern of self-destruction by their own choices. Hope abounds for anyone willing to work to make a better life.
For me, PEP is a life saver. I learned how much I was truly hurting myself and everyone around me by finding excuses to indulge in my weaknesses. I learned that I can be a part of a group without having to be just like everyone in it. I found out that fitting in does not mean conforming, it means contributing. Most importantly, I learned how to live with the fact that I am flawed. I have made mistakes in the past and I will make more in the future, but those mistakes do not define me; how I recover from them does.
My name is Jason and I am many things; a veteran, a son, a brother, an alcoholic, a convicted felon, a PEP graduate and a productive member of society.
Class 18 Graduate
The following testimonial was written by PEP Class 13 Grad, Greg L.
I have arrived at this point in my life because of the decisions I made a long time ago. To be an asset to this world means being a good person, a good son, brother, husband, coworker, neighbor and member of society. I am serious about the things that I have said. I have shown that and feel as though I have made it a priority. I have put my best foot forward and the world has noticed.
I lived behind bars from the ages of 15-26. As a high school dropout with no work history or a stable family member to call upon, and an extensive criminal history, life was bleak… but I was hungry and had direction!
I was released in mid-2010 and I opted to go home because my family needed me and I felt that I was equipped to lead. The first application I turned in – I got the job! What was really amazing about that was that the position was sought after by applicants and employees. The interviewer looked down at my application towards “The dreaded background portion”, looked up, looked back down and closed the application. Then he asked when I would be able to start … thank you Lord! … When you’re serious about being an asset to this world, society will recognize it and respond accordingly.
I’ve obtained much of what I dreamed about in prison. PEP has equipped me with confidence. I have been able to achieve much more than I ever thought, because my views about my worth were limited. It has been four years in the making as I write this to you and I am living a more productive life than ever. There are many topics that I could speak upon but within all of them YOU the executive volunteer and donor have played a major role, and for that I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
With Love and Respect,
Class 13 Graduate
The following was written by PEP Class 16 Graduate, Jason M.
God is a master craftsman, and He has a large tool box! Inside this tool box are tools that He uses to shape, mold, and make a man into what He destined and determined him to be in eternity past.
The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) was one of the many tools that God used to shape me into the man I am today. I find it divinely strategic that God waited until just the right time before introducing me to PEP. I was 37 years old and had over 12 years done on a 15-year sentence for murder when my life intersected with PEP.
My life in prison up to this point had been pretty stable and structured. God was using me to teach and preach His Word. I was a pastor and mentor to many behind bars, and in their eyes and in my own, naively, I was ready for reentry. So we thought…
However, after my very first day of involvement with PEP, I quickly discovered that there were things God wanted to pull out of me and put into me, that before my release and reentry, God would work what He both needed and wanted to do in me and through me.
And he used PEP to do exactly that!
PEP was the tool God used to challenge me and make me uncomfortable in new ways. It was the tool that helped prepare me for the curveballs and the blows below the belt that this world often throws.
Since my release and reentry, PEP is still playing a similar role in my life. I am actually now working for the very program that God used to work on me. It’s still a tool in God’s hand, and He is still using it to make me into the man He created and called me to be. I’m now also a husband, father, and strong pillar in the city, community, and church. I’m almost tempted to say I’m a success, but I’m wise enough to know that when the trumpet blows, and the roll is called up yonder, God and only God will determine who is successful and unsuccessful!
Until then, I’m determined to live life “between the wings” for God’s glory and the furtherance of God’s story.
In His Service,
Class 16 Graduate & PEP Transition Coordinator
Robert is the youngest valedictorian in the history of PEP. Robert graduated from Memorial HS in Houston and based on his academic success was able to enroll as a sophomore at A&M. He went there to study chemical engineering, and quickly joined a fraternity and began drinking heavily. As his addiction grew he lost various privileges and campus jobs, and he began to get more involved in selling drugs as well. After a particular deal went bad, Robert found himself in a very difficult legal predicament, and he was sentenced to three years in prison.
Robert joined PEP from another unit and was transferred first to Estes and then to Cleveland to participate in PEP. While he knew little about PEP at first, he had heard about it from someone in the faith based dorm that he was living in, and decided to apply. He enjoyed it immediately, and served as a Men’s Life leader during the Leadership Academy phase. He continued to work hard during the Business Plan phase, and ultimately did well enough to become the valedictorian of Class 23 Stellar.
In addition to this honor, Robert so embodied all ten driving values that he was elected “Mr. PEP” by his classmates. He said that the Fresh Start Outlook meant that he could have his dignity restored, and Accountability was the most challenging and most difficult value to take on.
He said that he found the entire program to be “the thing” that turned his prison time and experience into a great part of his maturation. Robert also said that as he entered prison his future looked very bleak, and his dreams disappeared. PEP has given him the positive attitude and desire and drive to fight for his dreams again. He hopes to re-enter A & M and graduate with his degree in chemical engineering a few years later than expected. Robert noted, “No man is an island, and with this brotherhood I cannot fail. I am the only person who stands in the way of my dreams, and knowing myself is the first step in overcoming this obstacle.”