A report has just been published this month by the Centre for Entrepreneurs in the UK that mentions PEP in Texas as well as Leonhard, the program in Germany that PEP inspired.

Centre for Entrepreneurs Report on Prison Entrepreneurship

American Enterprise Institute–Re-Entry Video

Posted: May 17, 2016 by wamjr60 in About PEP

AEI–Prisoner reentry and why we should care–in 60 seconds

Please watch this great video produced by the American Enterprise Institute about PEP.

Rehabilitate Former Prisoners with Jobs

Posted: April 29, 2016 by wamjr60 in About PEP

Re-Entry Week–Rehabilitate Prisoners

April 29, 2016
Rehabilitate Former Prisoners with Jobs
By Kevin Gay & Bert Smith
There is a pervasive misunderstanding that individuals who commit crimes simply go away when they are locked up. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Nationwide, even though more than 2 million citizens are incarcerated and in excess of 11 million will serve time in local jails, approximately 95 percent of inmates currently serving time in state prisons will be released one day. And the rate of release is more than 600,000 people per year.

We’ve all heard the stories, and we’re all familiar with the data revealing pervasively high recidivism rates, i.e., people being released from prison and shortly thereafter committing a new crime and ending up back behind bars. If the purposes of our criminal justice system are punishment and deterrence, public safety, and rehabilitation, clearly our system is failing us.

So the question with which we as a society must grapple is this: What sort of future for these released men and women best serves society at large?

Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the federal Department of Justice have designated the week of April 24 “National Re-entry Week” to help bring attention to the important work of helping ex-offenders re-enter society. As the leaders of two nonprofits on the front lines of this effort, we strongly believe that solutions exist, lives can be changed, and communities can be improved. Moreover, we truly can give these ex-offenders a second chance to lead productive lives.

Re-entry matters to all of us because successful re-entry makes us all safer and results in a more socially beneficial use of our tax dollars, and successful re-entry begins on the day an inmate enters prison.

Rehabilitation is never easy, but it is possible. One of the most important crime-fighting tools is employment. Operation New Hope’s Ready4Work program in Florida helps recently released clients transition back into the community and become productive and responsible citizens. Through a four-to-six week course, we address drug abuse issues, offer mentorship and guidance, teach character development and other life skills, provide job training and assist with job placement. Because of the rigorous nature of our programs, we have been able to successfully transition more than 3,600 ex-offenders back into their communities and workforce. Just as important, our strategic partnerships with local law enforcement, businesses, and the faith and community agencies have thrived. They see safer streets and find talented, dedicated, and reliable employees. When we find our clients jobs, we are helping to make our community safer and strengthening our local economy.

In Texas, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program’s approach to re-entry begins behind bars and supports inmates who want to reboot their lives. Our in-prison education teaches leadership, character development, and business skills, with college-level courses supplemented by graduate school case studies. Inmates develop a business plan and present it to real-world executives. They develop the skills they will need upon release to find a job or start a business and live a good life. When they are released, we provide comprehensive re-entry services in a structured environment of accountability and encouragement. We have served over 1,200 inmates in their transition and are proud to say that 100 percent of PEP graduates are employed within 90 days of release (and more than 180 graduates have started over 200 businesses). After one year, 90 percent are still employed, and our recidivism rate is just 7 percent.

Whether or not they have a program to help support their re-entry, all ex-offenders today face numerous barriers to success. While some make sense, given the crimes committed, many of these restrictions prevent ex-offenders from qualifying for decent jobs and housing. In Florida, there are 1,166 legal and regulatory sanctions and restrictions a person faces in addition to the sentences imposed by the courts. In Texas, that number is 1,586. Having allowed these restrictions to accumulate and persist, we as a society should not be surprised that as many as half of released parolees become homeless and choose to return to a life of crime.

We both have seen the transformative power of education, character development, faith, and employment through our work. We have seen lives literally saved. When you watch and assist an individual break a cycle of self-destruction and become a confident, responsible, happy, and productive member of society, you cannot help but be inspired.

Re-entry is about keeping all of us safe; it is about finding jobs, teaching skills, restoring hope, and saving lives.

We could not do this work alone. PEP and Operation New Hope rely on partnerships with law enforcement, prisons, and especially the business community. So this Re-entry Week, we encourage you to celebrate by engaging the businesses in your community. Businesses need motivated, talented workers; ex-offenders need a way to turn their lives around. The best crime prevention is a good job. Let’s get to work.

Kevin Gay is CEO and founder of Operation New Hope, and Bert Smith is the CEO of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.

CNN Op-Ed about Re-Entry and PEP

Posted: April 26, 2016 by wamjr60 in About PEP

(CNN) Every year, about 600,000 men and women (the equivalent of the city of Baltimore) return to communities across the country without anyone much noticing. Astonishingly, 1 out of 30 American adults have made this journey home over the last few decades.

Gerard Robinson

They occupy the ranks of a forgotten (and much maligned) class: the formerly incarcerated. Nearly 8 million strong, these “returned citizens” struggle to find work and if they do, they earn substantially less than their counterparts. This is partly because of stigma and partly because of lack of education, skills and work experience in time lost behind bars.
As a result, they disproportionately rely on government aid and are more likely to be homeless and develop chronic and acute illnesses. Unfortunately for them and for society, all too many return to the habits and lifestyles that sent them to prison in the first place.
This year’s National Reentry Week (April 24-30) represents a unique opportunity to shine a light on the challenge of turning the formerly incarcerated into productive, “returned citizens.” The White House hosted an event Monday with the Brennan Center for Justice and American Enterprise Institute to discuss the findings of a Council of Economic Advisers’ reportoutlining the economic costs of failure to successfully integrate ex-offenders into society.
Of those released from prison, one-third are rearrested in their first year out, 57% within three years and over three-quarters within five years. That means that less than one in four ex-offenders manage to stay out of trouble in their first years back in society, according to a 2014 Justice Department study. That same study found that the younger the offender, the more likely he or she is to have another run-in with the law after release from state custody.
But you don’t need to have much sympathy for those who spent time locked behind bars to believe we should do better by the formerly incarcerated — you just want to have safer streets. Our prisons are making those sent away better at harming innocent, law-abiding citizens.
The racial and socioeconomic disparities, coupled with a generally dehumanizing experience in prison, have also fueled a national movement to “reform” criminal justice laws in recent years. Many conservatives and liberals are embracing the notion that eliminating some of the “tough on crime” policies of the 1980s and 1990s, like mandatory minimums, harsh sentences for crack cocaine and other drugs, and voting and job discrimination for ex-offenders.
This approach might be a worthy proposition, but criminal justice “reformers” cannot expect that reducing sentences or suffrage alone will do much for the day-to-day lives of the formerly incarcerated. Just as important, this approach still leaves the safety of their neighbors, and the peace of our communities, in the balance.
Because the average length of an incarcerated individual’s prison stay is less than three years and 95% of prison terms are for less than life, the vast majority of the prison population is coming home at some point.
Unfortunately, too little emphasis is paid to this population, and the back-end efforts they need to be successful upon their release. Both state and federal attempts to reform the criminal justice system have focused on the entering inmate class, either by reducing the penalties or dissuading offenses in the first place. Lofty aims indeed, but they ignore the elephant in the room — what to do with offenders during and after their time in prison.
Preparation for the outside world is key for the incarcerated, but both state and federal systems have drastically cut spending on in-prison training over time and often provide little to no support (other than a few dollars and a bus ticket) to offenders upon release.
Unsurprisingly, exiting the prison gates becomes a daunting journey for most of the formerly incarcerated. Men and women, many who return to children they left behind, have lost their social support systems, any legitimate work they may have had, and in too many cases, are deeply in debt with legal and child support fees.
To help these returning citizens on their path back to productive and full lives, we must do more. Local, state and federal agencies spend just a tiny fraction of their criminal justice budgets on resources that empower the formerly incarcerated. Recent research into “what works” in reducing recidivism and easing the re-entry process is severely lacking.
What little does exist suggests that successful re-entry starts behind bars, when prisoners themselves choose to change their lives, learn basic skills, and begin to plan for a life on the outside. Upon release, the most effective programs help returning citizens reconnect with positive social connections, find work and housing immediately, and get and stay both mentally and physically healthy.
One such program, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program in Texas, helps the incarcerated build up their life and business skills on the inside and meets them at the prison gates. From there, returning citizens are connected with family, housing, health care and jobs. Many of the program’s  graduates go on to start their own businesses while only 7% find themselves in trouble with the law within three years. It accomplishes all this without a penny of government money.
That model, which bridges the inside and outside worlds, offers returned citizens hope for the future and an opportunity to change their own lives for the better.
Neither government nor nonprofits can solve this problem in isolation. Leaders from corporate, philanthropic and faith-based communities must also help returned citizens. In turn, this civil society approach will empower them to help themselves. Let us not forget that they are our neighbors, friends and fellow citizens and deserve the dignity and promise of the American Dream once their sentence is paid.




WFAA in Dallas features PEP!

Sebastian Robertson of WFAA in Dallas came to the Estes Unit on Friday morning, March 4th, and captured the story of one of the business plan finalists.

The Power of PEP

Posted: February 23, 2016 by wamjr60 in About PEP, FastPitch, Graduate Businesses

The PEP Softball Team is sporting brand new compression sleeves with the name of the team’s sponsor on them—The Clutter King.  Justin M. is the proud founder and owner of this business, and is an outside graduate of PEP from 2013.

Justin has always been a hard worker, and upon release from prison in 2012 after serving 4 years for a DWI charge, he was hired by his former employer in Houston.  The first thing he did after getting out was to buy a bike at Academy Sports and Outdoors so that he could ride his bike from I-10 and Antoine to 290 and Pinemont to get to his shift.  He started out on the assembly line and had several promotions over 8 months, and moved from the shop to the front office.  He now is in a management role there and oversees all the raw materials that the business buys and uses in its manufacturing process.

At the same time, he saved enough to get off the bike and in a car, and was able to buy it without incurring a high rate of interest on a loan.  In February 2013, he launched Clutter King in his father-in-law’s garage, and he focuses his work on residential reorganizing.  He also joined the National Association of Professional Organizers (www.napohouston.org) and is now a member of their board and assists them with Communication and Technology.  Clutter King was one of the PEP graduate businesses that was a finalist for 2014’s Fast Pitch Day, and he is now growing to the point where he will hire additional employees and or subcontractors to assist him with the business.

Justin’s wife was pregnant when he was incarcerated, and they now have another child, along with his stepdaughter.  They have just bought a home in Hockley, and Justin explains that their life is all about stretching and growing, stretching and growing.  His wife is the Volunteer Coordinator at Goodwill Industries.

His greatest takeaway from PEP is to Keep Going!  He feels that PEP and its brotherhood is a great catalyst for change and an active moving force.

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:


PEP helps former inmates make a positive impact on their community. To read the full story, click here.


“What if you were known for the worst thing that you have ever done?” That’s the question at the center of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, a nonprofit that helps convicted felons get a fresh start in life.

When a prison sentence is over, it can be tough for former inmates to move forward. It’s hard to find a job, engage in their communities in positive ways, and turn their lives around. In his 2004 State of the Union Address, George W. Bush said, “We know from long experience that if [former prisoners] can’t find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit more crimes and return to prison…. America is the land of the second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.” In Texas, PEP works to make that path easier to find, and easier to walk.

Prison Initiatives Manager Patrick McGee spoke recently at the State Policy Network Conference in Nashville, explaining that inmates “have potential, but nobody believes in them.” McGee knows what that is like. Born to a young single mother, he saw her taking government assistance and, he said, “that trained me how to struggle.”

Looking back, he realizes that the circumstances of his birth didn’t have to dictate his life. “Poverty, it may have been inherited, but it was something I did not have to exist in,” McGee said.

After serving time in prison, McGee turned his life around and — through his involvement with PEP — he now helps other men with criminal records to succeed. One of the first tasks new participants are given is to write a eulogy for themselves. This forces them to take a look at their lives and think about what people would say about them if they were gone.

“We work with those whom society has cast off, and instead of sending them back out to commit more crime, we hook them up with legitimate skills and challenge them to maintain high standards for their lives,” PEP’s website explains. Inmates are connected with entrepreneurs, CEOs, and top executives to learn the skills that will lead to success after re-integration.

Prison Entrepreneurship Program participants live by the four Gs: gather, grow, give, and go back to communities.

The first 36 hours after a prisoner’s release are crucial. Former inmates find themselves vulnerable, frequently without a support system that will be conducive to positive change. PEP is there to help with that as well. The organization provides some bare essentials, such as a care package and a place to stay, as well as clothes for job interviews, parole mediation and transportation. Family is critical to PEP, so the group works with families to assist with reunifications and connect participants with local churches. When participants have re-entered society, PEP is there to help them get on their feet.

Former inmates meet weekly to discuss entrepreneurship and are frequently joined by business leaders who mentor them as they look for work. For many, PEP is their avenue to their first legitimate job. Participants are trained in everything from negotiation, marketing and web development to portfolio management and taxation. PEP can even provide small amounts of start-up capital and a $500 reimbursement once Entrepreneurship School (eSchool) is complete, a process that takes place over the course of at least 20 workshops. Above all, these men must earn their help.

“We don’t do handouts,” McGee said.

The results speak for themselves. PEP boasts three-year success rates of up to 95 percent, and a recent study by Baylor University has found that the program has a return on investment of an astounding 340 percent, thanks to reduced recidivism, increased child support payments and less reliance on government assistance.

The organization receives no government funding and, perhaps most telling, 25 percent of PEP’s donors are graduates of the program. Checking out the testimonials on their YouTube Channel, it’s not hard to see why.

As McGee puts it, “To see someone take a hand up and run with it, that’s a beautiful thing.”

PEP was recently filmed by the Charles Koch Institute, and the video was shown at its Advancing Justice Conference this month in New Orleans! Check it out to hear PEP staff members, graduates and participants explain how our organization is making a dent in a system that wants to forever keep felons under its thumb.

PEP cited in the Washington Post!

Posted: October 29, 2015 by Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) in About PEP

PEP Board Member and former state senator, Jeff Smith, spent a year in federal prison. Read on to discover what he learned, or click here for the full story.

washington post

On Oct. 1, a bipartisan group of senators introduced an omnibus bill that aims to yank our criminal justice system out of the “tough on crime” era that slammed shut the doors on a generation of offenders. Hailed by some, the federal “Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act” would do all this and more: reduce mandatory minimum sentences for many drug crimes, retroactively get rid of the differences in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine, seal and expunge more juvenile records, limit solitary confinement for juvenile offenders, offer compassionate release for elderly prisoners, and reduce sentences if a prisoner gets involved in programs that have in the past reduced recidivism.

The senators modeled their reforms on what some states have shown to reduce recidivism, eased reentry and saved money.

I have looked at this subject from more angles than most. I’ve been a state senator. I’ve been a federal prisoner. I’m now a public policy professor with a new book on the subject.

And like others, I’ve concluded that U.S. prisons create better criminals, not better people – which is very costly not just to those who will be re-incarcerated, but to taxpayers, to all of us with whom former prisoners will live when they are released, and to anyone concerned with public safety.

The bill that aims to incrementally reform sentencing is a good first step toward reintegrating former prisoners into society. But to have lasting impact, we must transform prison culture itself.

What do studies of recidivism say?

The main reason people re-offend is financial struggle. Most ex-offenders are unemployed because they didn’t go far in school, they can’t show much in the way of a work history, and they were convicted of crimes before. But seeking legitimate work can seem laughable when most employers won’t hire ex-prisoners.

Here’s one approach to getting them jobs: prison education, which will help them succeed in a tightening labor market.

And succeed they should. The natural ingenuity of prisoners – especially those who once managed successful (illicit) businesses – suggests that education to become entrepreneurs in legitimate industries would be ideal. Indeed, I witnessed extraordinary entrepreneurial efforts while I was behind bars.

What are prison hustles, and what do they suggest?

Conventional wisdom is that prisoners have it made – “three hots and a cot” – but the reality is more complex. At the federal prison in Manchester, Ky., we received a monthly allowance: a week’s worth of toothpaste and a thin bar of cheap soap about the size of a credit card. If you wanted anything else to improve your hygiene while living virtually on top of hundreds of other sweaty men, you had to fend for yourself.

[Phone calls won’t cost up to $14/minute any more but here’s how prisoners’ families are still being fleeced]

That’s not counting what we might want to spend on paper, pens or stamps, money for phone calls to loved ones (often more than $1/minute, thanks to greedy prison phone companies and commission-hungry wardens). My $5.25 a month for full-time work on the warehouse loading dock didn’t go far. I had savings to cushion me. Few had that luxury.

Since the wages we earned from prison jobs were scarcely enough to survive, hustling was the only option available for most. “Dred” was one of my many fellow prisoners whose hustle showed real entrepreneurial ingenuity. From the cell next door, he ran a bustling Jamaican eatery, serving delicious meals cooked with ingredients pilfered (sometimes by me) from the prison’s warehouse. He sold meals for stamps, mackerel, cigarettes, or occasionally, pornography, and analyzed the relative profitability of meals based on the price he paid for ingredients — no mean feat given the number of currencies in which he traded.

Prison was teeming with ambitious men like Dred who wanted to fly straight, and there probably wasn’t a single concept taught at the Wharton School that he didn’t grasp. Yet there were no mechanisms to help men translate their intuitive grasp of business into legitimate enterprises. Decent prison educational programs are rare, and the 2008-2009 recession accelerated a decades-long austerity trend, as legislators cut “non-essential” prison services like vocational training.

How can we leverage prisoners’ inmate talents?

Upon their release, 650,000 people annually land on America’s doorsteps to try to succeed in communities where they once failed — now with the added baggage of prison records. Nearly three-quarters will re-offend. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, given a penal system that has long stressed punishment over rehabilitation.

Expanding some existing programs could change this. For instance, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) links prisoners to mentors who guide them through an intensive, seven-month MBA-level course. Prisoners build pro forma income statements, perform market research and craft full-length business plans. As their final exam, they pitch visiting potential investors. PEP’s 10-year recidivism rate is 6 percent. Several PEP startups book a million dollars in annual revenue.

[Can therapy keep young men out of crime–and prison?]

Even for prisoners lacking entrepreneurial aptitude, education makes a significant difference. A recent RAND meta-study found that prison educational program participants were far less likely to re-offend than nonparticipants, resulting in a 43 percent recidivism reduction – 85,000 fewer offenders annually, if extrapolated nationally. RAND’s findings also suggest that prison education is cost-effective: while education costs average $1,572 per inmate, reincarceration costs average $9,250 less for each prisoner who received education than for those who did not — a 6-to-1 net benefit. Other studies found similar efficiencies.

What does the current political/policy terrain look like?

An array of groups across the ideological spectrum have begun to be effective in challenging mass incarceration. Without the prospect of another election, President Obama has shown interest in reform – backing the recently-filed legislation, and issuing an executive order re-instituting Pell Grants grant for federal prisoners. Red-state senators like Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah have joined him, scrambling traditional party politics.

But given Washington gridlock, can meaningful change happen? Democrats’ most reliable voting block, African Americans, were until recently the most prominent voices on the issue. Many white Democrats had left them behind, however, assuming Bill Clinton’s “posture.” But Republicans have lately come forward. A quick analysis of the parties’ electoral coalitions helps explain why.

There are three main domestic policy wings to the modern Republican Party — fiscal conservatives, social conservatives and libertarians — and all have compelling reasons to support criminal justice reform. Budget hawks fret about $80 billion of incarceration-related expenditures annually. Religious conservatives see offenders’ potential for redemption and support more humane treatment of them. Libertarians chafe at intrusive surveillance and draconian drug laws that can incarcerate people for life after a third offense.

While Democrats decry the prison-industrial complex’s vast human toll, many actually helped build it. The Democratic Party spent much of the 1980s and ’90s struggling to shed its cartoonishly libertine 1960s image, leaving them to “outbid” Republicans to see who could be tougher on crime—especially crimes disproportionately committed by African Americans. More offenders meant more prisons. That empowered correctional officers’ unions, which would later help pass “Three Strikes” laws in more than two dozen other states, and who remain skeptical of reforms that would threaten their jobs en masse.

[If both Republicans and Democrats support sentencing reform, what stands in their way?]

The recent depoliticization of criminal justice makes reform more likely. Historically, when the parties are competing on the issue, more prisons get built. Take the region where incarceration boomed most: the South. Criminal justice issues were suppressed while conservative Democrats dominated Sunbelt states. But for the first time since the Civil War, the 1950s saw development of two-party competition with new ideological schisms. Republicans found success in affluent suburbs and later in rural areas. Liberal Democrats began supplanting old-line conservative Democrats.

Republicans like Richard Nixon emphasized wedge issues such as crime with an eye on Sunbelt voters and Electoral College hegemony. And so penal policy suffered “hyperpoliticization.”

Today the Republican Party has stopped pushing “tough on crime” policies. As a result, Democrats have little need to neutralize the issue. The new transpartisan reform coalitions lead many to predict a policy “window” that enables change.

Ambitious reformers seek to halve the prison population by 2025. It won’t be easy. Most of the 1.3 million people in state prisons committed violent crimes. Cutting in half the number of people in prison would require touching the “third rail” of penal reform by releasing not just the so-called non, non, nons — nonviolent, non-serious and non-sex-offender prisoners — but also some with histories of violence.

Reducing recidivism would require more spending on quality, rehabilitative prison education programming. And spending money on prisoners is never popular with taxpayers.

Even if high-level policy changes pass, can they be effectively implemented?

Some correctional officers (COs) taunted men who were preparing to go home, with lines like “See you in six months.” Most staff made their disdain for prisoners clear and their lack of interest in rehabilitation even clearer.

Upton Sinclair once observed that it is impossible to get a man to understand something when his livelihood depends on him not understanding it. Widespread prison education will only occur when COs no longer believe their job security depends on a continuous stream of prisoners. Prison culture can’t be transformed until society stops seeing prison as a warehouse for society’s throwaways and starts seeing it as a costly revolving door and massive waste of human potential. Scholars who have studied the influence “street level-bureaucrats” wield over policy implementation would certainly agree. A failure to transform our collective worldview essentially guarantees – just as the COs who once ruled my life sneeringly predicted – that most parolees will indeed return to prison soon.