American Enterprise Institute Visit to PEP

Posted: February 23, 2016 by wamjr60 in About PEP, Accountability, Articles on Incarceration and Recidivism, Fresh Start Outlook, In the News, Venture Capital Panel, Wise Stewardship

Can free enterprise redeem the incarcerated?

Gerard Robinson, Elizabeth English, Sean Kennedy
February 23, 2016 4:55 pm | AEIdeas

Cleveland, Texas.

An hour north of Houston, over 70 suit-clad volunteers shuffle into a place most fear to enter: prison. Greeted by CEO Bert Smith and his staff, these “executive volunteers” – drawn from Houston’s elite business community – are there to counsel prisoners in entrepreneurship.

Without a dollar of government funds, the Texas-based Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) trains prisoners to start their own businesses upon their return to society. It not only offers education and community within the prison’s walls but also gives participants the tools to succeed in life after prison through re-entry, employment, and social opportunities.

According to Smith, PEP “trains up men to gain a complete understanding of what it takes to run an honest business and build social capital.” That innovative approach, different from your average prison-based program, is already reaping rewards. PEP graduates are dramatically better off than their non-PEP counterparts, being significantly less likely to re-offend and more likely to hold down steady, well-paying work, according to a Baylor University study.

PEP emphasizes that it is “a hand-up, not a hand-out.” Participants are selected from across Texas’s prison system through recruitment and screening. After being selected, they are transferred to one of two prisons where PEP operates. Program participants start a 9-month program that includes a Leadership Academy — a character building course — and a crash course in business and entrepreneurship that culminates in a competition to determine which would-be entrepreneurs’ business ideas hold the most promise. PEP even convenes “Venture Capital Panels”— like in the TV showShark Tank – where executives volunteer to judge the budding entrepreneurs, listen to their elevator pitches, and offer feedback. Upon completing the program, successful participants graduate and receive a “Certificate in Entrepreneurship” from Baylor University.

Astoundingly, the program places 100% of its graduates in work within 90 days of release. Many achieve it much sooner. After 12 years of operation, the program has built up a network of 750 Texas employers that have placed a PEP graduate in gainful employment. The average starting wages for PEP graduates are 60% higher than minimum wage. After 6 months on the job, graduates earn an average of almost $16 an hour.

Learn more:

Though PEP is underpinned by Judeo-Christian values, participants are drawn from all races and creeds. Only men may apply, and above all other qualities PEP looks for in the competitive application process, applicants must demonstrate a commitment to changing their lives for the better.

That shared commitment to building a new life fosters palpable camaraderie among the inmates. PEP participants – most of whom have been wards of the state before – call each other “brother” and consider volunteers and staff “family.” PEP’s “10 Driving Values” (including “excellence,” “accountability,” and “fresh start outlook”) are hung around the room PEP occupies in the prison and shape every activity and interaction. Participants are asked to speak in front of volunteers and other participants regularly. They are also given business cards that they distribute to volunteers with the hope of connecting with them upon their return to society.

Upon release, PEP staff meet the participants at the prison gates and start the re-entry process – acquiring civilian identification, medical insurance, food assistance, and basic necessities like toiletries and clothes for a job interview. PEP also runs transition housing for graduates and assists with job placement and parole compliance.

To date, PEP graduates have started 211 businesses with six of those exceeding $1 million in annual revenue. In addition, the vast majority of graduates stay on the straight and narrow. The latest available data suggests that less than 7% of graduates have been re-arrested in the three years since release— an astonishing figure given national recidivism rates exceed 50% in most jurisdictions.

PEP accomplishes all of this on a shoe string budget of $2.4 million in 2016 with mostly volunteer labor. Ninety percent of its paid staff are PEP graduates themselves.

In many ways, PEP embodies the American Enterprise Institute’s mission of “increasing individual opportunity and strengthening free enterprise.” Deep in the heart of Texas, this little platoon of society is serving its fellow man by promoting self-sufficiency, free enterprise, and hope among those society often deems unredeemable.

By believing in participants and empowering them with tools for success, PEP is helping to reduce America’s high recidivism rates – a phenomenon AEI scholars including Robert Doar, Maura Corrigan, and Sally Satel have highlighted in the past. PEP may offer a path out of the vicious prison cycle toward a freer, safer, and more prosperous society for all, beginning with ex-offenders.

This article was found online at:
http://www.aei.org/publication/can-free-enterprise-redeem-the-incarcerated/

 

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