Posts Tagged ‘al massey’

The following was written by PEP’s photographer: Israel Thompson (a.k.a. “Shutterbug”). You can see his work here.


While shooting at the Estes Unit event at PEP the other day I got ambushed with a microphone that was thrown into my hand. Jeremy, thank you for the heartwarming words about not being a staff member, but saying that I “should be”. I’ve never pre-rehearsed or planned a speech for the occasion, perhaps I should have, but the words I envisioned coming out if the opportunity ever presented itself didn’t quite bubble to the top. Instead, my response to the question “Why do you keep coming back to PEP?” came out rather short and lame. Obviously not a public speaker, I muttered something about being inspired and quickly handed the microphone back.

That being said, albeit a bit late and without an audience of peers and microphone, I’d like to somewhat retroactively rectify the situation.

For me, my experience with Prison Entrepreneurship Program started in May of 2012 through a friend and fellow co-worker when I received word they were in need of an event photographer. After a meeting with the COO of the organization, Phi Tran, and a bit of back and forth finalizing details, the relationship took root and I commenced with Class 17.

My initial impression upon entering the prison was nothing at all as anticipated. Where I expected to be face-to-face with disgruntled prisoners playing the stereotypical Hollywood portrayed “acting hard” role, mad dogging me and giving me the ole intimidating stink eye, I was surprised to be met with quite the opposite. I was rushed into a room they call the “PEP Room” and went straight to work with my camera. The room was bubbling with festivity! The atmosphere in this place was overwhelmingly excited! Everyone had smiles! Everyone greeted you and wanted to shake your hand! Everyone offered to help, if needed. The vibes being received all seemed to convey a resounding message, “YESS!!”. Music pumped loudly and the guys were all crowded around in a circle, apparently having an improvised dance party while waiting for what they call “Executives” to arrive. As I briefly surveyed the scenery from outside the circle, I noticed they all had decorative stuffed animal-oriented hats on. I guessed perhaps to lighten the mood and draw smiles. Which worked! Hurriedly though, I surveyed no longer and made my way to the middle of the circle to catch the action. These guys were having an excellent time! Some, with extraordinary dance skills whisked around on the carpet pulling off break dance moves I wouldn’t have thought possible, while others with lesser skill got out and a danced too without a care in the world. I was dumfounded. And I grinned from ear-to-ear while being privileged to be a part of it.

Don’t get me wrong — this was indeed a prison, and for all I knew I was rubbing shoulder-to-shoulder and bumping elbows with murderers, hardened criminals, people that society had given up on, and most probably at one time or another (or even now??), even had nothing to lose between the walls they found themselves trapped within. But… The comfortable feeling that came over me… It was instantaneous. It was as if a spirit of joy flowed all about. And I know I’m a guy. And it’s different for a guy as opposed to a lady, but I never once felt strange, awkward, or threatened. To me, just that alone was amazing! Profound! And to me it showed right there, in sneak peek fashion, just what this program is able to do.

Fast forward to today.

I’ve been with PEP for over 2 years. I’ve photographed numerous events, both in and out of prison. From Class Kickoffs to Graduations and a few events in-between here and there, I’ve had had my fair share of variation. And I’d like to share with you what I see from a photographer’s perspective. NOTE: much of this is directed towards the participants when addressing “you” in the words following.

First, I wasn’t lying at all when I muttered I was inspired. I truly am. When I leave each event, I’m filled with inspiration as I drive home. It’s as if I have a rejuvenated renewed vigor and you guys — and all the people participating — have inspired me to do better for myself. Likened to an electric charge, my batteries have been filled!

When I’m photographing, I am there to work, so I cannot participate in the festivities like everyone else. I cannot sit and listen to each participant pitching their business plan. I cannot listen to each and every speaker with undivided attention. And for that matter, I barely even have time to clap. Because alas, clapping and happy candid faces are something that need photographed! So… What I take in — not by choice, but by trade — I take in sparingly, almost from an outsider’s point of view. Trust me when I say, however, what I’m able to retain or soak up, is not at all diluted.

When I see each and every one of you guys get up in front of a packed crowd in the lunch room (or PEP room) and tell your story bearing your soul, I have the greatest respect for what it is you are doing right there in that moment. And that respect carries over permanently because you have given me a window into your soul. When you’ve taken the time, with a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes, to share with everyone where you’ve come from and what matters to you, you’ve shown me your true character, the real you that’s deep down inside without worry of what others may think, I admire that thoroughly. It makes me examine myself, remember some of the things I’ve been through, the hardships, the ups, the downs, and that it’s not only that it’s not where I’ve been but where I’m headed that matters, but some of those past experiences have given me immeasurable understanding and wisdom — things I need not forget. Needless to say, you trigger deep thoughts within.

With many of these business plan pitches I hear I may look like I’m in the zone with a face of concentration as I’m moving about, squatting, photographing, crouching and moving from side to side, but my interest is incredibly peaked. I want to listen to every detail, from beginning to end. I sometimes pause what I’m doing just to hear a little bit more before moving onto my next task. I’m amazed at how you all memorize 10-15 minutes worth of words and recite it without pause. When a business plan ends. I want to clap like everyone else. And sometimes, I’m even thinking to myself “Ohh ohh! I have a great idea that would probably help him with his presentation!” And some of those times when the possibility arises, with an enthralled demeanor, I gladly share those thoughts.The stark reality of these plans for me is, though, I am not a public speaker. So, it’s hard for me to fathom the hundreds upon hundreds of times you guys have to get up in front of everyone and recite. Major kudos to you there. What’s nearly equally remarkable is how all of your class brethren sit watching your pitch attentively, with a face of utmost interest. The support that is shown is intriguing. And again, I am inspired.

What I observe with each class from beginning to end is miraculous. I see a fresh new group of people uncertain of what’s to come. “Investigators”, as you were referred to recently. Many of which haven’t quite given yourselves to the program. Testing the waters, if you will. Some of you won’t make it to graduation, but most of you will. The spirit of remaining steadfast, diligent, without giving up is instilled over and over and made a topic of utmost importance. With all the encouraging words floating around, I find myself speaking words of encouragement in passing and truly hoping each and everyone one you make it, as well. It’s as if something in the air is rubbing off on me and I’m part of your family sitting in the stands at your high school football game. I’m jumping up and down, screaming at the top of my lungs, cheering you on. Rain or shine, sleet or hail, doesn’t matter whether you you’re the star of the game, make a big play or just get out onto the field and play, I’m there… cheering.

Coming back to photograph you guys at graduation is like night and day. This is when the faces are no longer new, but all are familiar. Those lone stragglers from Kickoff that wouldn’t smile for headshots, the ones that acted like they couldn’t let their guard down, that still had something to prove… that’s almost all gone now. Everyone is smiling uncontrollably. Your hard work has paid off. It’s great to see each and every one of you again. It truly is. And I am astounded at how you’ve grown in leaps and bounds in the process. It’s not everyday you see someone completely change their lives around for the better. It’s mind-blowing to be a part of — and moving in so many ways. I mean, because, if “this guy” can do all of this, then I can too! These things I’ve been putting off. Things I’ve been pro-crastinating getting done? Why should I sit by idle and slacking in these areas of my life, giving myself all these excuses when guys like this aren’t? They are giving it their all, why shouldn’t I?

In regards to graduation day, a quick fact: something I’ve witnessed that rings true every time, the ones that look like they are trying hardest not to smile, like they have something to prove or cannot let their guard down, those are the ones that cry the hardest when it comes time to walk down the isle. Why is this, I ask? Something to ponder.

Graduation isn’t the end. For many of you, the true test is being servant leaders. Others, it’s actually getting out and being exposed to the outside world. This is when familiar faces become a great sight to see. On the inside, Servant Leaders, I shake your hands the longest and converse with you the most. It seems as if we’ve seen each other enough times there’s somewhat of a bond between us. I’m enamored by what you do for each upcoming Class. It’s a true display of stewardship. For those inside and those that have made it out, seeing your act of sacrifice and continuation in the program motivates me more than you know. How your lives have been changed and continue to grow… it increases the yearning in me to give something back in life… exponentially.

Thank you for that. And, if that wasn’t enough of an answer to “Why I keep coming back to PEP?”

Well, besides being paid. And besides being inspired exponentially. Hearing people like Al Massey, Bert Smith, Jeremy Gregg and all the other PEP staff get up and speak definitely adds icing to the cake. When I hear Al Massey speak, I think to myself, “This guy knows all the right words to say for every given situation!” I mean, sometimes I wonder where he comes up with the stuff he says?! Seriously! Is it that he’s lead by The Spirit and speaks fully improvised? Or are all his words carefully calculated, thought out and rehearsed in advance? It’s one of those mystical questions like “What is the meaning of life?” or “Do unicorns really exist?” Al Massey, your speeches alone would make one want to come back. No lies.

As for Bert, every time I see or hear Bert speak, an endearing spirit of love radiates from him. It’s captivating. I get a genuine sense he sincerely and unabashedly cares for each and every one of those in the program, let alone the staff and executives. This is the type of quality that’s remarkable to see in the CEO of the company. And it’s the type of trait that draws you in, makes you want to come back and see more. It’s an attraction.

All that being said, being the photographer for PEP has become quite a bit of an honor. I enjoy capturing your smiles, your laughs, your tears, hugs, handshakes, memorable moments, family portraits and everything else I can aim my lens at while there. When I sit for hours upon hours wading through thousands of photos from your events, I sit with a smile on my face. And I take pleasure in every minute of it.

But… the real reason I keep coming back to PEP is… THE COOKIES! Keep giving me cookies and I am yours forever.

 

Sincerely,

 

Israel Thompson
Your photographer

The following article was originally posted on August 6, 2014 in the Houston Press:

Good Investments: Teaching Texas Inmates About Business Can Turn Criminals Into CEOs

By Craig Malisow
Published Wed., Aug. 6 2014 at 9:00 AM

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Photos by Troy Fields

“This is not about charity.
This is about opportunity.”

Jeremy Gregg, chief development officer, 
Prison Entrepreneurship Program

 

A short while into a 30-month sentence for buying a stolen trailer, James Cornish received a peculiar postcard in his Plainview prison cell.

It was from a group called the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. Even in prison, it seemed, there was no escape from junk mail. Cornish set it aside and didn’t think much of it until a guy from that organization named Marcus Hill rolled in with a video and a spiel.

Hill said he had served five and a half years of a 17-year bit for possession of seven pounds of weed. He got that postcard, too. It changed his life. Now he was a recruiter. He went from prison to prison and preached the gospel of business education.

There was no shortage of rehabilitative or educational programs in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Many of them promised to hook you up with Jesus. But PEP was the only one that promised to hook you up with CEOs.

There was an “entrepreneurship boot camp,” a business plan competition, a re–entry program upon release with transitional housing and continued education. It appealed to Cornish’s business goals. He was an independent truck driver at the time of his arrest, and was in such a hurry to grow his business that he’d taken a shortcut. Cornish bought a flatbed trailer knowing full well it was stolen.

“It was a quick, easy way to make a bunch of fast money,” says Cornish, who at 32 still looks every bit the linebacker he was at Los Angeles Valley College.

Prison didn’t end his ambitions; it just interrupted them. And PEP retooled them: Cornish still wanted a bunch of money, but now he was prepared to get it the right way. He was prepared to work hard and put in the time.

He already had a truck waiting for him on the outside, so he was able to find work in a matter of weeks after his release in 2011. He says he bought “a raggedy truck” and pieced it together. Fast-forward two years, and Cornish is running six trucks and “leasing” outside drivers — finding them work and collecting a cut. He says he’s grossed more than $5 million and has bought two homes.

If one were partial to cheesy metaphors, one could say that PEP’s participants are sort of like that raggedy truck, and the program’s core philosophies — rooted in both character development and business acumen — are the tools to piece it together.

Now in its tenth year, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program boasts a significantly lower recidivism rate than not only the general released population but also of five major offender rehabilitation organizations.

One hundred percent of its graduates are employed within 90 days of release; 73 percent find work within 30 days. The average wage is more than $11 an hour.

While PEP is about to launch its program in TDCJ’s Sanders Estes unit, it has operated solely from the privately run Cleveland Correctional Center, about 40 miles north of Houston. Participants are accepted from prisons across the state after a rigorous application process.

Despite its own significant stumble five years in when it was discovered that founder Catherine Rohr had engaged in inappropriate relationships with four graduates and had to resign, the program continues to attract volunteer executives and business owners — “repeat attenders,” in local parlance — as well as interest from other state correctional departments. But other prison systems have yet to implement anything like it — PEP appears to be the only program of its kind in the nation. That might be because it serves a demographic that is easy to ignore or even look at in practical terms: Nationally, hundreds of thousands of offenders are released each year. Many of them will commit new felonies and go right back in.

If a system could even up those odds — if it could look at a group of drug dealers, thieves and murderers and see potential taxpaying, productive members of society, then those people would become more than just ex-offenders. They would become a good investment.

“General George S. Patton said, ‘When compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.’ Clearly, General Patton has never had his business plan critiqued by you.”

— PEP Class XXI participant to 
business plan adviser

 

Return on investment is where it’s at.

Jeremy Gregg, PEP’s chief development officer, made this point at a series of TED talks in 2012. Delivering easily digestible stats in high-energy bursts, Gregg assumed the role of pitchman — a carnival barker urging the audience to look at the untapped market potential inside his “gated community.”

Gregg, an executive MBA with a history in nonprofits, first volunteered for PEP in 2007. Looking at the nation’s correctional system through a purely financial lens, he saw a black hole.

“This is a deeply troubling financial issue,” he told the audience. “We will pour $74 billion…into corrections this year.”

Speaking strictly as a taxpayer, Gregg said, “I wouldn’t have a problem with it if it worked, but it doesn’t.” That’s when the startling statistics flashed on the screen behind him: According to national recidivism statistics, half of the 700,000 offenders released in 2012 were predicted to return in 2016, having committed a new felony. That’s one crappy ROI.

But graduates of the six-month program were a different story, Gregg told his audience. These guys learn skills. They use college-level textbooks and the AP writing style guide, and study Harvard MBA cases. And, as Gregg is fond of pointing out, “These guys literally read and discuss Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment while sitting in prison.”

Not all inmates are eligible for the program: Sex offenders are prohibited, as is any inmate with current gang ties or recent and significant disciplinary actions. Inmates must also be within three years of release. For each six-month block, there are approximately 6,000 eligible inmates in TDCJ. About one in four return postcards expressing interest in applying. In return, they get a roughly 20-page application packet; about two-thirds actually apply. Then there’s more reading requirements, a test and an interview. About 47-48 percent were convicted of a violent crime — murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault or robbery. The average participant is serving his second sentence. (The program’s directors have chosen to offer it only to male prisoners because they make up the overwhelming majority — 93 percent — of the total Texas inmate population, according to recent statistics.)

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Courtesy of PEP/photo by Israel Thompson
Bert Smith (center) became the PEP’s CEO afer five years of volunteering.

 

And their mentoring doesn’t stop at the prison gate: Gregg told audiences that one of the keys to PEP’s success is an inside-out approach in which volunteers continue to work with offenders after their release, and offenders continue to take classes.

“If all we do is train them on the inside, pat them on the back and say, ‘Good luck to you,’ there’s a good chance we’re going to train a drug dealer how to leave prison with a better marketing strategy,” Gregg said. “And that’s not what we want to do.”

According to a report on PEP by Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, “Studies show that a former inmate’s most vulnerable and impressionable time actually occurs in the first 72 hours following release.”

That’s why every PEP participant is, upon release, met by a case manager who drives him to his family’s home, a halfway house or one of PEP’s transitional homes in Houston and Dallas. And his studies don’t end at the gate, either — newly released participants are expected to complete 20 “Entrepreneurship School” (or “eSchool”) workshops in which they learn sales, marketing and personal finance. Eligible graduates can win a cash bonus for investment in their business.

Sure, it’s the nice thing to do. But it’s not just designed with ex-offenders in mind — PEP’s directors say it serves the public as well. These guys aren’t simply peppered with platitudes and released into society with a cheerful disposition. Every man who graduates from PEP saves Texas taxpayers an average of $21,000 a year, according to the Baylor study.

Individually, that may not sound like much, but the study points out that by 2012, the state’s correctional system was sucking $3.3 billion from the budget. Moreover, according to the Baylor study, PEP grads have a three-year recidivism rate of just under 7 percent, compared to the state average of 23 percent.

The heart of PEP is the business plan competition. Over six months and 1,000 classroom hours, participants craft an idea for a business, then pitch it, Shark Tank-style, 120 times, to volunteers. At the end, three winners are chosen, but all graduates receive a certificate of entrepreneurship from Baylor.

These practical ambitions exist within a framework known as the Ten Driving Values. These range from the more grounded — Accountability and Innovation — to those of a more touchy-feely sort, like Love and Fun.

Cornish latched onto the tenth one: Wise Stewardship, which states in part, “We will apply donors’ funds as promised…We use funds intelligently, efficiently and strategically to achieve maximum benefit for all whom we serve.”

For Cornish, this means that when he signs a contract, he delivers.

“If I tell a company I’m going to have ten trucks there [and] we’re going to complete this job in five or six days, that’s what I’m going to do,” he says. “I don’t care if I have to drive a truck…24 hours a day for five days; I’m going to do it. I’m going to get the job done.”

“There but for the grace of God, in many cases, I could be sitting not in a pinstriped blue suit but a blue jumpsuit.”

— Bert Smith, CEO, 
Prison Entrepreneurship Program

 

Nine years ago, Bert Smith, a venture capitalist and Princeton-educated economist (with a JD from UT-Austin tossed in for good measure), was sitting at his weekly Executives Association of Houston breakfast meeting, listening to a woman named Catherine Rohr talk about her strange new prison rehabilitation program. Smith was sold. He told her he’d like to volunteer as a business plan adviser.

“I think maybe I didn’t realize it when I went to breakfast that morning, [but] after I heard her speak, I really felt a desire to give back,” Smith says. “That sounds very lofty, but it was actually very simple. I just felt like, wow, you know, I’ve had some ups, I’ve had some downs; maybe I can bundle up that mess and share it with somebody else where it’ll really make a difference.”

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Photo by Troy Fields
Program graduate James Cornish (right), talking with driver Marlon Martin.

As profiled in a 2012 Inc. story, Rohr at that time was working for a Manhattan private equity firm and commuting regularly to prison. Specifically, she had found God in her twenties and, as part of a ministry, brought the gospel to Texas prisons. But in between all the Jesus talk, according to the Inc. story, she found that inmates often “exhibited many of the same qualities she looked for when she met with founders as an investor.”

By 2004, Rohr had left New York for Houston and founded PEP. An attractive, dynamic speaker, she had no trouble gathering volunteers and media attention. So of course the media were on standby in 2009 when Rohr confessed a transgression and PEP nearly imploded: In the midst of a divorce, Rohr engaged in what have only been described as “inappropriate relationships” with four PEP graduates. Suddenly, the focus wasn’t on all the men the program had helped in the previous five years, but on a scandal. As Kris Frieswick reported for Inc., the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, fearing Rohr was a “security risk,” conducted an investigation and banned her from ever entering any Texas correctional facility — one of the rare times a person has been punished by being forced out of prison. Rohr had no choice but to step down from the program she had created.

Whatever concerns prison officials may have had about the program’s future were likely tempered by its track record up until that time. Even if Rohr had faltered personally, her formula had been proven a success.

Jason Clark, a spokesman for TDCJ, told the Houston Press in an email that, in 2004, “It was an unknown, but PEP officials were very passionate and were convinced that the program could help tackle one of the biggest barriers for offenders — employment. Also, the program’s approach in pairing successful executives in the corporate world with offenders who had some business skills was unique. Ultimately, the program showed promise, and now, almost ten years later, there are numerous success stories of former offenders who have started businesses and become taxpaying members of society.”

But by the time of Rohr’s departure, Smith was willing to move from volunteer to CEO. His trips to prison over the years had given him a new outlook.

He may not have felt that way before walking through the prison gates, but after he really got to know the inmates, he says, he saw them “as human beings, not sort of as caged animals, and human beings whose life stories were raw, who in most cases made bad decisions in extremely difficult and unforgiving circumstances. Honestly, I began to have a lot more empathy for them, and felt that if they were willing to commit to living a new life with new values…then I was willing to do what I could to help them.”

Around the time Smith joined PEP full-time, an ex-offender named Al Massey became the program’s executive relations manager. A big part of Massey’s job is recruiting volunteers, like Rohr once did, and perhaps one of his best selling points is himself.

On Halloween night 2003, the 53-year-old Massey was drunk-driving his truck along Beltway 8 when he smashed into the back of a truck that had stalled in the right lane. That truck burst into flames and the driver was killed. Massey pleaded guilty to intoxication manslaughter and was sentenced to six years.

He’d had 35 years of sales management experience, came from a loving family and had a clean record. He’d also been married three times. He never thought he had a drinking problem. He started in sales when three-martini lunches still helped close deals. His thinking was: I never drink at home, so therefore I can’t be an alcoholic.

Prison changed that. He had plenty of time to think, and he did whatever he could to keep his mind occupied. He read every day, did crossword puzzles. He took whatever jobs he could, and when the PEP postcard came, he filled it out and sent it back. He figured a business class would help his goal of keeping his mind intact. Soon, he says, he discovered the program was just as much about developing character.

Sixteen other inmates from his unit took the bus to Cleveland Correctional, “and we bonded, and we found out what brotherhood was all about,” Massey says. “Because, you know, in prison, it’s hard to sometimes let down your guard, because you don’t want…people to consider you to be weak or anything like that.”

Upon release, Massey moved into one of PEP’s transitional homes, found quick work at a moving company that was run by a PEP grad, then got a less back-breaking sales position before the spot at PEP opened up.

Now Massey gives presentations to college business classes, church groups, civic groups, any groups that will listen, to find volunteers.

“You write a business plan, but that’s not the nuts and bolts,” Massey says of the program. “The nuts and bolts is to make you realize who you were supposed to be, and not who…you’ve become so far in your life. That there’s always a chance to change. Because fresh starts are available.”

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Courtesy of PEP/photo by Israel Thompson
Longtime PEP volunteer Kirsten Berger says she loves witnessing the participants’ transformation.

 “How often can you be around people who are in the middle of completely remaking themselves as individuals?”

— Bill Frank, PEP volunteer

 

On the phone, Al Massey can be soft-spoken.

But here, in the Cleveland Correctional Center’s cavernous gym, where 129 participants of PEP’s 22nd class are being welcomed to thunderous applause by more than 100 volunteers, Massey is an electrifying emcee.

The volunteers, mostly middle-aged, mostly white men and women in business attire, form two parallel lines as the inmates, a mostly young mix of black, white and Latino in blue jumpsuits, stride down the aisle created by the volunteers, smiling as they slap palms and shake hands. Many inmates take the time to greet each of the volunteers, whose first names are printed on laminated tags, and thank them for coming.

It’s a downright cheery, celebratory atmosphere that includes chocolate chip cookies and a sound system blaring “Hip Hop Hooray.” If it weren’t for the jumpsuits, the event could be mistaken for a pep rally at a high school for slightly older students.

In a bit, the inmates will set up rows of folding chairs that face each other, so PEP participants and volunteers can introduce themselves and talk for a few minutes. It’s like platonic speed-dating. Some of the volunteers, like Kirsten Berger and Bill Frank, have been coming for years. In her makeup, slacks and heels, Berger seems like the last person you would encounter in a prison gym, but there might not be anyone else here who appears to be having as much fun.

A few years back, when she attended her first PEP class as part of her certification for becoming a life coach, Berger wasn’t quite sure what to think. She saw the joy and hope on display behind this bastion of barbed wire and was haunted. “These guys are criminals,” she thought. “They aren’t supposed to be smiling.”

But after a while, she says, she saw the transformation. She says that these criminals were really trying to become something.

“Nobody should be defined by the biggest mistake they ever made in their life,” Berger says. No doubt about it, these guys screwed up. They made terrible decisions, but, Berger says, “Your choices can suck, but people don’t suck.”

Berger says she got hooked by witnessing in the participants a “complete transformation of a human being,” which is also why Frank, the general manager of business development at Chevron, stuck around.

Like Berger, Frank is among the “God squad” contingent of PEP. He met a PEP grad at church and was intrigued enough by the guy’s stories that he decided to check it out himself — provided his new friend accompanied him. He’d go to prison only via the buddy system.

“I thought I’m just a, you know, suburban white guy, professional job…no tattoos,” Frank says. “What do I have in common with these guys?”

As you might have guessed, the story ends with Frank realizing he had more in common with them than he thought. And much of that had to do with their being, like him, husbands and fathers. There was something there to connect with.

And as also happened with Berger, Frank said the real appeal was in the changes he was witnessing: “The fancy word is ‘transformation,'” he says. “You’re around all these people who are changing their lives right in front of you. And you know, how often do you see that?”

Striking a more subdued pose was Jaime Shaw, a first-timer who’d heard about PEP from a friend who’d volunteered. Shaw had especially personal and professional motivations to check out the program: He knew just how difficult it was to start a career with a criminal record.

Five years ago, he and his business partner founded Greenstream International, an Austin-based recycler and remarketer of used electronics, not just out of entrepreneurial zeal but out of necessity: Both men had criminal records.

Unlike the men in PEP, Shaw didn’t have a felony; but a series of misdemeanors, including assaults — the byproduct of years of drug and alcohol addiction — closed a lot of doors. Shaw found out that, whether it’s a few years in prison or a plea-bargained probation, “These punishments go on in perpetuity.”

If on the rare occasion Shaw scored an interview with a potential employer, once they got to his record, “the whole tenor of the interview change[d].” To Shaw, a job rejection carries a sharper sting for an ex-offender. For non-offenders, it’s an unfortunate roadblock on the path to the next interview.

But for “people like us, when [you’re] being told no, you’re really just being told, ‘Hey, you’re not good enough, and you don’t belong here.'”

Today, even though Greenstream’s 200 employees span several U.S. states as well as a facility in Hong Kong, Shaw still feels the sting of those interviews.

He and the company’s co-founder are “now in our thirties, and we’re fathers…we’re business owners. We are still facing the consequences of those convictions, you know, ten, 12 years later. What we did as boys, we’re still paying for as men.”

That’s why Greenstream hires ex-offenders, and why Shaw and his business partner are eager to talk about that practice with other employers.

“Usually,” Shaw says, “the first thing out of another business person’s mouth is, ‘Oh, yeah, and you can pay them less.'” (For Shaw, it’s quite the opposite: He says Greenstream’s ex-offender employees are paid well. In return, “What we get is lower turnover; we get a better-invested employee, and we get people that have just a higher level of gratitude for what they’re being given, and recognize it as a real opportunity and not just a place to spend eight hours of their day.”)

Knowing full well what this latest class of PEP participants will soon be facing, Shaw was eager to pull up a folding chair and chat with each of them.

Two and a half years ago, Cornish sat in one of those chairs. He’d done the work to get through the application process, he’d done the work for six months of classes and business plan competition, and, on the outside, he does the work from about 4 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m. during the week, and he spends the weekend fixing up his trucks for Monday. Some day he’ll take a more hands-off role — a position he says his wife would just as soon have him take sooner.

“My wife tell me all the time, ‘Hey, baby, why don’t you put on some clean jeans today and a clean T-shirt and some nice shoes?'” he says. “That’s not me. I don’t wear that.”

It’s all part of that “wise steward” value Cornish likes so much. For six months, PEP’s staff and volunteers invested in him. When he was released, one of the program’s board members lent him money to buy more equipment. A lot of people have a lot invested in James Cornish. He doesn’t want to let them down. One day, he’ll drive less and focus more on management and writing contracts. Getting there is all on him.

“I’m headed that way,” he says. “But until it comes, it’s me.”

Great news! Photos are now available from the Class #Transcendent 22 Kickoff … as well as their headshots and some special images from a recent Houston Press article on PEP!

See the whole gallery here:
http://prisonentrepreneurshipprogram.zenfolio.com/class22

Special thanks to our long-time photographer, Israel Thompson, for these amazing images. We especially love this shot of three graduates who now work for PEP …. Al Massey (Executive Relations Manager), Marcus Hill (Recruiter), and Charles Hearne (Development Associate).

Most PEP Staff members are also graduates, including Al Massey, Marcus Hill and Charles Hearne.

Most PEP Staff members are also graduates, including Al Massey, Marcus Hill and Charles Hearne.

Winnefred Jackson

Winnefred Jackson

My name is Winnefred Jackson and I am a 2009 graduate of Baylor University. I graduated from Hankamer School of Business with a major in Financial Services and Planning. I just wanted to share with you the amazing experiences that I have had since being a part of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.

In March of 2013, I read an article on Baylor’s website about PEP and I knew that it was something that I just had to be a part of. I grew up in a neighborhood in which for most people fathers were nonexistent because of drugs and jail. I emailed Al Massey so that I could find out how I could use my skills in economic development to serve the needs of the program.

Mr. Massey invited me to my first experience at PEP, Class 19 Graduation. I walked in with the notion that I would see how I could help the program, but what I received was a life changing experience.

As a woman in an all-male facility I was nervous at first, but once I walked in I realized that PEP was a band of brothers striving to pull each other up and be a support system for each other. Some of them did not have family on the outside to encourage them, but on the inside they had PEP.

I cried at graduation as if I knew someone about to walk across the stage.

What I saw that day was men able to hold their head up high with a sense of accomplishment. Regardless of what the men had done in the past their families, friends and business plan advisors were there to support them.

Many of the men had dropped out of high school and had on a cap and gown for the very first time. Even those that had been in the past repeat offenders where given another chance to get it right to do something to make their loved once proud of them once more. They received a Certificate in Entrepreneurship from not just any school but my alma mater.

Through attending more PEP programs I talked to the participants and learned more about how the program was helping them to become better fathers and better men. Over a year later, I still remember talking to a young woman while waiting in line to get inside graduation. She began to tell about how her husband had actually gotten paroled a few weeks ago, but made arrangements to be able to come back and graduate. The fact that her husband left prison and asked to come back in order to graduate spoke volumes about PEP.

A few weeks after attending graduation, I was at a conference in Dallas and picked up a newspaper. Inside the newspaper was a drawing of a prisoner getting out of jail only to stand in an employment line. That drawing confirmed that I was exactly where God wanted me to be. Without the help of PEP, men will be released with no direction while families eagerly awaits on their leadership.

It’s so easy for them to succumb under pressure by trying to make easy money and possibly end up right back in prison. With our help, these men can be the leaders that they need to be for their families. I hope that you will join me by becoming a business plan advisor (click here) or helping out at one of the events (click here) so that you too can be a repeat attender like me.

PEP Graduate Al Massey was invited to speak to the Waxahachie Rotary Club, and the local paper wrote this article about his presentation.

Prison Entrepreneurship at Rotary

Al Massey of Prison Entrepreneurship Program

By John Hamilton Waxahachie Rotarian

Half of all felons return to prison after serving their terms and being released. They go back to the old neighborhoods and their old ways, commit another felony and wind up back in prison. In fact, there are about seven million people in U.S. prisons which is twice the rate in Iran. Al Massey explained one way which has been reducing the rate of returns to prison from half to five percent. He is involved with the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) at the Texas Department of Protection pre-release unit in Cleveland, Texas. The problem as PEP sees it is that people may learn in prison but they are not changed themselves. A drug dealer who learns about business in prison may be released to become a better drug businessman. PEP strives to make him a new man instead.

The process involves application, interview and evaluation. Felons who have less than three years left to serve and are not sex offenders may apply. They fill out a twenty-five page application then write an essay. Next, they are extensively interviewed. Those who are chosen are moved to the Cleveland unit. This is not a gated community. PEP only invests in prisoners who will invest in themselves. They are expected to work harder than they ever have before to meet the standards set for them in the1,000-plus hour program.
According to Mr Massey and their web page, PEP made up of servant leaders on a mission to transform inmates and executives by unlocking human potential through entrepreneurial passion, education and mentoring. Their groundbreaking results include the three-year return-to-prison rate as low as five percent, an employment rate of one hundred percent within ninety days and over one hundred twenty businesses launched by graduates.
In addition to the business courses offered, and, perhaps more important, they are offered character development and courtesy training. They have mentors. They study more hours than they would if they were going to college and they are pushed and encouraged to dream the impossible. The impossible is that, at the end of their training, they will have prepared a business plan for a legal business after graduation. Graduates earn a “Certificate in Entrepreneurship” from Baylor University.
After graduation they are released to a transitional home which is not near the area they came from. It is a new environment without the old influences. There are case managers and they are given a package that includes everything they need to start out even including sheets and pillows. If they want to start a business they are eligible for a KIVA loan up to $5,000. There is no handout; it is a hand up.
Graduates are truly transformed with new knowledge, new opinions of themselves and a new outlook on life. They expect to be successful and they have been so far.
For more information visit the web site at www.pep.org or sign up for their newsletter athttp://pep.org/media/newsletter.aspx. Mr Massey may be reached at 281-881-5794 or amassey@pep.org.

For more information about the Rotary Club of Waxahachie where we believe in Service Above Self and doing things as a club we cannot do alone, visit the club website at www.waxahachierotary.org. You can find American flag subscription forms on the website.

The University of Houston’s newspaper, “The Daily Cougar,” recently ran an article about the university’s students involvement in PEP. You can see the article online here, but it is also included below.

Students in the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship in the C.T. Bauer College of Business have been volunteering for years at the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, an entrepreneurial extension of the Texas Prison System, which has graduated more 800 inmates.

Through the Business Plan Advisor Program, MBA students volunteer to teach inmates how to write business plans and pursue their own entrepreneurial ventures.

“This is a remote volunteer program through which MBA students can receive business plans being developed by incarcerated participants in our program,” said Jeremy Gregg, the chief development officer at PEP. “The students provide feedback on the plans and help with market research.”

This outreach program at the Wolff Center is recognized for impacting and transforming the lives of inmates and volunteers.

Al Massey, UH alumnus and executive relations manager for the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, is an example for both volunteers and inmates.

While he was in prison serving a six-year sentence for intoxication manslaughter, he was recruited to participate in the program. After graduating, he stayed on as a peer educator until he was granted parole and released in May 2010. Shortly after, he began working at PEP and has demonstrated how people can be remembered for their positive actions.

Character Assessment

“We can all make mistakes when we take risks, and in my first 55 years of life I never thought I would be incarcerated,” Massey said. “PEP changed my character and made me the person that God meant for me to be by making me look at my faults.”

Any student Bauer who is interested in serving the community while gaining both teaching and entrepreneurship experience can look into the opportunity to volunteer through the Wolff Center.

“By being a business plan advisor or by volunteering in other areas with this program, students can help these men realize they are significant,” Massey said. “We cannot be the world to everyone, but we can be the world to one person. By volunteering, students can touch someone’s life and be the world to that person.”

PEP graduates Al Massey and Charles Hearne will be interviewed on Channel 13 in Houston THIS MORNING, 9/8 at 11am CST. The program is City View — tune in or set your DVRs!

Houston radio host Michael Barry talks with Al Massey, a graduate from the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, about giving people a fresh start. Check it out!

http://www.ktrh.com/media/podcast-michael-berry-show-on-ktrh-michaelberry/michael-berry-08192013-9am-23601334/

pep softballWe are putting together a PEP Softball Team in Houston and we need your donations (especially your old softball equipment)! We also are looking for people to attend our games and cheer for us.

This is going to be a great way to build community among our released graduates while getting them more involved in their community, so your support will really make a difference.

Our first games are in July, when we join the City League (including a tournament on July 20).

PEP graduate Marcus Hill is printing the team’s shirts — and on the back, their jersey number will be the Class that they graduated. The whole team will consist of released PEP graduates and will be coached by Marcus and myself. Please contact me if you are able to help us … we would love to have you join us to watch the games and cheer for us!

Al Massey
Executive Relations Manager

PO Box 926274│Houston, TX 77292
Mobile: (281)-881-579
amassey@pep.org

Dinner at the Caleb House

Staff and volunteers sharing a meal with PEP graduates at the Caleb House

While we are proud of all that our participants accomplish within the prison, the hard work begins once they are released.

The first 90 days present tremendous challenges. In addition to the obvious burden of securing job interviews, our participants have to find reliable transportation to those interviews. For some, securing a form of identification such as a driver’s license or birth certificate can involve hours and hours of paperwork, phone calls and riding the bus from place to place.

At the same time, they are also dealing with a whole new world. Some of our participants have literally never used the Internet and never seen a smartphone, let alone used a tablet computer to fill out a job application.

During these challenging times, an encouraging word from a friend means a tremendous amount.

To provide more opportunities for our Houston-area volunteers to connect with our graduates during this critical period, we offer the following opportunities to join us for a meal and some fellowship:

  • Every Tuesday evening … dinner at the PEP office for recently released graduates attending our eSchool program. This is a weekly class taught by volunteer executives and entrepreneurs, with a focus on how to apply the principles that our participants learned during PEP’s in-prison programs. We share a meal for around 45  minutes beforehand, and you are welcome to stay for the presentation (or to leave after dinner). RSVP is required so that we can plan for your arrival.
  • 2nd Monday evening of each month… dinner at the Caleb House, one of our two transition homes in the Houston area. This is “family dinner” that lasts an hour or two, and provides a great opportunity to get to know our released graduates.
  • 4th Monday evening of each month… same as above, only this is dinner at the Covington House.

PLEASE NOTE: An RSVP is required to attend. Please contact Al Massey at AMassey@PEP.org if you are interested in joining us, or have any questions. We can then provide details on timing and location.

Thank you for supporting our efforts to transform the lives and families of our participants!