Archive for the ‘Fresh Start Outlook’ Category

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.

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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/

 

Aaron BThe following letter was written by Aaron B., a graduate of PEP.

——

I was broken.

I was lost, far more than anyone I’ve ever known. I was not subject to a neglectful childhood; it was a life in which we did not want; not even a life light and with happy memories. I was a young man who could not stand the sight of others, would not listen to the wisdom of elders and refused to accept the good that life had to offer. I saw the world as broken and empty and made my decisions based on the idea that I could not do as much damage to the world as it had already done to itself; done to me. I accepted that I was stained and bad and that I would never be good enough to entertain the simple joys and pleasures of my family and friends.

I was unworthy.

I would not acknowledge my mistakes yet accepted them as part of life. I decided that there was no need to be better. I made choices that put me in places that I didn’t want to be, but understood that, because of how dark I was inside, my prison had no walls that I could scale, nor chains that I could break. I forfeited my rights, I forfeited my chance, and I forfeited everything that my family and friends had offered to me, yet I felt so little.

I was a creature lacking willpower.

I do not know what to say about how my life is, after participating in something like PEP. I cannot tell you where I would be otherwise or what I’d be doing. PEP did not change me, but it was there waiting to provide me a chance to change when I was ready. It is a long walk to go from wanting change in your life (because regardless of my acceptance of who I was I had decided that I would never go back into that place) and still accepting that your demons are a part of who you are and will always be there- and being able to wake up and not think that your darkness is overwhelming, to have positive, permanent change and be able to look yourself in the eye. My life was hard, and I was in prison, and I felt as though I was empty and lost.

My feelings were right.

But I have become a creature of willpower.

It is a struggle every day to decide that I am more than just the sadness and despair that once enveloped all I was. I work in a fantastic place, with fantastic people who make me feel appreciated. I have my own possessions, and can say that I am proud to take care of what is mine; to prove that things have some value to me, and it’s not destructive. I treasure those close to me, and some days are hard and it seems as though clouds cover all we do, but to feel true love for the people who are closest, and not have it tainted with the knowledge that we were doomed because of evils we cannot overcome is absolutely priceless. I cannot say that there are not dark days. I cannot say that some nights I don’t lay in the dark and wonder why I keep on fighting. I cannot say that the demons are not there, and that I do not still feel unworthy.

But I am more worthy than I was.

My prison was life. My prison was the overwhelming fear and self-hatred that comes with believing that every unthinking animal is better than you could ever be. The fears are still there. Now, though, my life has love that I can feel; that I can return. My life now has truth that I can hold dear. My life is not another day waiting for the dark to finally fall.

I have been broken.

But I am mending.

——

www.PEP.org!

Read similar testimonials from other graduates here.