Posts Tagged ‘daily journals’

PEP was just profiled by Acton Institute, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to the study of free-market economics informed by religious faith and moral absolutes. The full story can be found here.


Shortly after the day’s guests arrive at the East Texas prison, and well before they begin to mix with the inmates, they hear a low rumbling noise in the distance. As they make their way closer to the prison gymnasium, the low rumbling grows into a constant and thunderous clamor. For those making their first visit to the Cleveland Correctional Center, located 45 minutes north of Houston, the roar of the inmates’ husky voices is disconcerting—maybe even intimidating—as they wonder what awaits them. The energy inside the prison is relentless, almost palpable. When the doors swing open to the gymnasium, the day’s guests walk single file through a sea of shouting inmates. One hundred and twenty-six prisoners to be exact.

But this is no angry riot. This is a victory celebration.Visitors are greeted with deafening applause and pats on the back from the inmates as they walk through what can only be described as a celebratory hand-slapping gauntlet.

The fist-pumping reception sets the tone for the day in what feels like a pep rally. It signifies that something behind the bars of the 520-inmate prison, indeed within the hearts of many of its prisoners, has changed.

Welcome to “pitch day,” where inmates practice and prepare for an upcoming business plan competition managed by the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), a Houston-based nonprofit that turns incarcerated men into aspiring business owners.

During this important dress rehearsal as they prepare for their final examination, inmates receive feedback from mostly local business leaders. At a later date, the men in the program deliver a 30-minute oral business plan presentation to a judging panel of business executives and venture capitalists from across the nation. But before inmates make it this far, they must successfully complete PEP’s three-month character development program called Leadership Academy. Then they move into PEP’s core program, the six-month business plan competition that leads to a Certificate in Entrepreneurship from Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business.

Jay Wall, a Houston-area real estate developer, says the program “is all about changing the trajectory for these young men.” They can succeed and fairly quickly. “They just need to be willing to listen,” Wall says. “We come here because we want to help, and we believe in what is going on inside these walls.”

Bert Smith, CEO of the PEP program, begins the day by bringing the people in the gymnasium to silence. He speaks about Gideon, an Israelite judge, and the amen choruses from the assembled prisoners begin. “I have always thought of Gideon as a hero, but when God came looking for a leader, Gideon’s response was, why me?” Smith tells them. Gideon, who thought of himself as nothing special, is a reminder to those assembled that he was divinely selected to free the Lord’s people. Before I even arrive at Cleveland Correctional, Smith tells me that PEP doesn’t really do ministry at the 40-acre minimum security prison. “It’s not a faith-based program,” he declares. But coming inside these walls makes me think of the celebration of the Prodigal Son’s return in Luke’s Gospel, which is clearly a picture of the embrace believers can expect from their heavenly Father. Several times during the day Smith jokes with volunteers and inmates that the prison is “our own private gated community.” He tells the visitors, “Whoever came in here looking for caged animals will be sorely disappointed.”

Smith will lead and help instruct prisoners on pitching their entrepreneurial ideas and start-ups to the “venture panels.” Smith describes it as something akin to the hit television show “Shark Tank.” He tells me the inmates, in putting together their business plans, become virtual experts in important concepts, such as what competitive advantage their start-ups bring to the marketplace. Inmates are critiqued fairly, but with little patronizing or sympathy for their plight.

The program, which launched in 2004, addresses the huge need for positive reintegration of convicts into productive civilian life. When most inmates are released, they can’t find a job. A felony conviction is devastating in any job market. Almost 75 percent of PEP graduates are employed within 30 days of release, and 100 percent are employed within 90 days. Many inmates choose to live in transition homes provided by the program when they are released so they are fully plugged into a community and network that provides opportunities to succeed. The program’s three-year success rate is as high as 95 percent. In 2013, Baylor University determined that PEP delivers a 340 percent return on investment for every dollar donated to the program.

PEP also boasts of a low recidivism rate. After three years, less than six percent of PEP graduates are repeat offenders, compared to 23 percent of non-PEP graduates. To be eligible for the program inmates must not be incarcerated for a sex crime, must be within three years of release, and must possess a high school diploma or GED, all while making a commitment to change.

Natalie Baker, executive relations manager for PEP, oversees an ice breaker exercise that helps inmates and visitors connect. She lines up prisoners and volunteers face-to-face. The two groups take a step forward if they have something in common, such as coming from a broken home, experiencing a history of being incarcerated, or having used illegal drugs. For the most part, the similarities are evident. The exercise is a reminder to inmates that success is not out of their reach and to volunteers that the inmates aren’t unlike them.

Baker, who has a law degree and MBA, spent four years in prison when she seriously injured two motorists while driving drunk in Florida. She admits her transition out of prison was much more difficult than her actual incarceration. Baker was harassed and turned down for jobs despite holding two advanced degrees.

Otis Rogers, a 33-year-old inmate from Cleveland, Mississippi, was apprehended while transporting drugs from Texas to his home state. Rogers says the PEP program has been critical for pointing out the flaws in his character. “It’s a great program, and I really like it,” he told me. Rogers pitches the idea of a barbershop named “Picture Perfect Haircuts,” which would also specialize as a dry cleaning service. The business panelists who review his pitch aggressively challenge the notion of a joint barbershop and dry cleaning shop, suggesting Rogers commit to one or the other.

Being from out of state, Rogers’s story differs a little than some of the others in the program. When I caught up with him later in the day he says he is due to be released later this summer. He seems unsure as to whether he will open a barbershop and appears more excited about an opportunity in Mississippi working as a truck driver, a job he previously held. “I will be released before the graduation day from this program, but I plan on coming back with some of my family for the ceremony,” says Rogers.

Thirty-four-year-old Stevon Harris pitches the idea of a welding business, an industry in which he seems to have considerable experience and skill despite initially seeming a little shy or unsure of himself.

Inmates in PEP are given “sweet names” to help shed former gang nicknames and their rough reputation. Harris is also known as “Chris Tucker,” presumably named after the Hollywood actor and comedian. He says the program has taught him character, self-discipline, and brotherhood. “It really took the people around me in PEP to bring certain issues to my attention,” he says.

Character assessments are a big part of PEP, and most of the inmates I talk with admit this is the most challenging part of the program. One inmate describes it as akin to standing in front of a mirror all day while others give you constant correction. Another inmate says it’s essential because “you need to have somebody covering your blind spot.” Inmates are confronted with their faults and what they need to do to not only make changes but also be held accountable for their words and actions.

I ask Harris, who is scheduled for release in 2017, if the program is what he expected, and he freely admits it is a lot different. “Honestly, at first, I was looking for something that I thought was going to be much easier and a handout,” he says. “But through PEP now I can visualize my own business plan, and I see others who are released from here but come back to share their success stories.” Eligible inmates from all over Texas can apply for a transfer to the Cleveland facility for the program. Not all who apply will be admitted.

I question a 40-year-old inmate from South Texas about the ones that drop out, a topic I haven’t seen addressed in any of the media coverage or PEP testimonials. “A lot of people do leave the program,” he confides. “They simply can’t handle the homework, and there is a lot of after-hours work and preparation they are not willing to embrace.”

The business plan competition requires 1,000 hours of classroom time over six months. That works out to several hours of homework per night. Inmates study college textbooks and read novels like “Crime and Punishment,” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

One of the best and most animated venture plans comes from a young and very personable inmate named Joshua Moore. He looks younger than his 30 years, and he tells me he was sent to prison for bringing drugs into a school zone. “I’ve seen some people come out of prison like a broken down Vietnam War vet,” Moore says. “I didn’t want to live like that. That’s why I got involved in the PEP program.”

Moore’s “sweet name” is Marvin the Martian, and his business is “Ooh-La-La Auto Spa.” He even has a jingle ready for the pitch and has clearly thought extensively about how to market the auto cleaning and detailing business. The competition judges give him largely positive feedback and offer further suggestions such as tips for servicing vehicles while clients are at work. The name of the business, with its sexual overtones, is catchy. And after Moore’s presentation, I am fairly convinced it has a legitimate chance at success in part because I can’t help but be drawn in by the infectious personality of the “Ooh-La-La” mastermind.

Moore, who writes me a short letter along with some of the other inmates after my visit, personalizes his note with something I told him about my life and our conversations at the facility. Some of these guys really know how to network.

Joshua McComas, 27, says his favorite part of the program is the way volunteers come inside to give entrepreneurial instruction and critique. “The effort these volunteers put fort is important for us,” he says. “That feedback is essential, and I actually use it to improve myself. I mean, all these people come in and smile at us, and my own family won’t even smile at me.” McComas says PEP “is actually going to give me a chance to support my family.” He talks about vowing to “have something of substance to show my son, once my son allows me back into his life.”

It is easy to forget you are inside a prison while attending a PEP event, but in the afternoon we are interrupted several times by guards for inmate roll call. The steady interruptions seem a little out of the ordinary, even for prison. While there is no violence at Cleveland Correctional while I am there, I find out later that day that a serious prison riot broke out at the Willacy County Correctional Facility near Harlingen, along the border with Mexico.

After more inmates are grilled on their business plans, state regulatory laws, and start-up costs, everybody settles back into the gymnasium for a celebration, testimonials, and dancing. Volunteers who are first-time visitors to the program are required to dance for whooping inmates and offer up their own testimonial of the day’s experience.

A PEP skeptic might feel like some elements are carefully choreographed for maximum buy-in and emotion. But it’s hard to argue with the authenticity of many of the inmates and the entrepreneurial skills and knowledge that have been ingrained in more than 100 participants. PEP’s successful statistics are not going unnoticed by politicians either. Texas’s senior U.S. Senator John Cornyn lavishes the program with praise, saying it is “reforming lives” and “strengthening Texas communities.” There are plans to expand the program in Texas and possibly across the nation.

There’s a common feeling that many of the inmates have been changed more by the character assessment side of the program, rather than the rigorous academic work required to participate and graduate from PEP. It’s clear that inmates understand that if they are going to receive a shot at redemption, it will require much more than entrepreneurial and financial success. Many, but not all, speak freely and openly about their Christian faith and credit that for their transformation and success.

At the end of what could be described as a prison revival, Smith shouts to the assembled, “These men are determined not to let past outcomes determine the future.” This reminds me of something similar written by the Apostle Paul, when he was hopelessly wrapped in chains. He told the Church at Philippi, “What has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.”

The following was written by incarcerated men who are participating in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program‘s Class 22 “Business Plan Competition.”

Week in Review: Week 7

Monday (18 August 2014)

Get to the Point

Get to the Point

Today in Toastmasters, Class 22 began our third round of speeches on project number three called “Get to the Point.” Every speech must have a general and specific purpose to inform, persuade, entertain or inspire. The purpose is what helps to organize your speech. We have also learned that choosing a topic that interests us individually helps create enthusiasm about the speech and its subject matter. If you show passion, then your audience will be more engaged. When the audience is interested, then they are more willing to consider your point of view.

As a team we have come a long way in a short period of time. The more speeches we prepare for the more confident we will be when it comes time to stand in front of those executive panels again.

Tuesday (19 August 2014)

Prior participants. “Used by permission from Tamir Kalifa / Texas Tribune.”

Prior participants. “Used by permission from Tamir Kalifa / Texas Tribune.”

We enjoyed the day off from class in the PEP room, but as everyone knows our time is still full of studying and writing, whether it’s our business plans or our letters to our loved ones. There is never a dull moment, and for some that is a blessing. Looking around I see PEP brothers helping others with the study packet that Bert S. gave us last week. None of us could have ever guessed that being in this place would bring about smiling faces and encouragement.

To see people supporting one another is really fitting since we have all vowed to be our brothers’ keepers. Every day we get closer and closer to our graduation and the bonds of unity get stronger and stronger. Some of us have been searching for this our entire lives. This is becoming a true brotherhood that we can depend on.

Wednesday (20 August 2014)

Entrepreneurship A Small Business Approach textbook

Our textbook

Good morning PEP! I’m sitting in the computer lab looking around as brothers stare into their screens learning Microsoft Word, Excel and Power Point. This is just another great advantage that PEP gives us. It’s great to get the opportunity to become a little more computer savvy, since many of us have never really learned any computer skills.

Yep, you guessed it: time to put everything under our seats for the test. Our knowledge was tested over Chapter 5: Developing a Mission Statement. Looking around, the brothers seemed very confident that they have prepared well and this test will be a piece of cake. Bert S. gave a lecture on the Economics of One Unit (EOU). We have been hearing a lot of intimidating stories about the EOU test, but the way Bert S. explained it, it does seem fairly simple. Looking around the PEP room, confidence is still in the brothers’ eyes. We know that this EOU test coming up is nothing compared to the dedication, perseverance and discipline that we bring to the table. We are Transcendent 22.

Thursday (21 August 2014)
If I could describe the atmosphere in the PEP computer lab today for Transcendent 22, it would definitely be that of execution. That is one of PEP’s 10 Driving Values that we strive to live out each and every day. Men who have never turned on a computer before are now completing assignments. It takes a lot of self discipline to execute these assignments. I see a lot of interaction with all the brothers since each has his own obstacles to overcome. Each time we step into the computer lab, we become more knowledgeable and gain a better understanding of the business world. This is what it is going to take to become a successful entrepreneur.

Friday (22 August 2014)

Wow! Another week has flown by in the PEP world. Decorian W. prayed us in with a prayer of healing going out to PEP graduate Bobby Colombo. Aaron C., Johnny H., Marty R, and Decorian W. all celebrated birthdays today. Guess where they went? You’re right, to the back of the room! Just when you think you have seen all the dance moves, new ones are created.

Peter N. took us through the next assignment in our business plan which was “Market, Competition and Differentiation.” This deals with general facts about the business, whom we compete against and how we will create a competitive advantage. We also learned a little more about the EOU’s from Alex L. and Pat M. as they went over the revenue model and the income statement. There were a lot of questions, but when all the dust settled we walked out of the PEP room one lesson closer to becoming an entrepreneur.


The PEP 10 Driving Values

The PEP 10 Driving Values

Servant-Leaders are a rare species. For over two thousand years people have studied the Master. Whether you are a person of faith or not, there is no denying the fact that Jesus was a great example of a leader who served all those around Him. There are leadership professionals, coaches, executives and speakers that are making money every day trying to implement these principals into the lives of those in businesses, schools, churches and any other organization that wills to succeed. However, the key element is love. Without love all our efforts are seen as self-seeking and not genuine.

Every day we have a responsibility to add value to those around us. Sometimes that comes in the form of edification, but it also comes in the form of correction. The transformation that takes place in the men’s lives in this place is extraordinary, and there is nothing like this anywhere in the world.

The following was written by incarcerated men who are participating in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program‘s Class 22 “Business Plan Competition.”

Week in Review: Week 6

Monday (11 August 2014)

It is an unavoidable and necessary reality that on Mondays our class gets a little smaller. For some, their journey is not yet one of the challenges being conquered through self-examination and a peer-driven curriculum. PEP is not for everyone and that is alright.

At this point, all of us are getting more familiar with all the procedures of Toastmasters, and we are able to execute our roles assigned by the elected officers. The speeches are getting better and the nerves are settling, week by week. Content and confidence permeate each session. Monday is also another great time for us to utilize the computer lab and learn how to operate some of the programs. These skills are new for some and simply a review for others. At the end of each class, we get the much-needed time to look through market research for our business plans.

Tuesday (12 August 2014)

we must live together as brothers or perish together as fools

Members of a prior class.

What is a day off for those in PEP? It’s time to study for Wednesday’s tests and keep honing our Venture Capital Panel (V.C.P.) presentation for Friday which looms just over the horizon. Groups form in the dorms where orange folders brighten up the normally drab atmosphere of the dayroom. The conversations about business and tests are floated around and food is shared; unity through a common journey is developed. We are not Black, White, Hispanic or Asian; we are all brothers who want to cross the finish line and leave nobody behind. PEP is always a force of motion and it stops for no one. As Class 22 proceeds toward graduation, our environment is changed by the arrival of those slated for Class 23. They are the ones who will follow in our footsteps as they shake off the “coach ride” courtesy of TDCJ. It’s custom for graduates and participants to greet the new arrivals with a friendly welcome. This is not done in a normal TDC setting, so everyone is a bit reluctant and cautious. Soon they realize that this a different kind of life, and the journey is just beginning.

Wednesday (13 August 2014)

This day of the week seems to always come quickly and with it the nervousness of test day. Participants enter the room and collect their name badges, ready to meet and greet one another. After a few minutes everyone jockeys for position in the homework line. All assignments must be turned in before pray-in to avoid more homework. After the inspirational reading, we all sit down and put everything under our seats. Clipboards are passed out along with the tests and — for those who are unprepared — the much-anticipated reckoning becomes a reality. Silence is broken only by writing instruments scratching across paper. Each person knows that his fate this week depends on his performance: we each need to score a 70 or better. All those who fail to meet the mark will inevitably have a sore hand due to lots of writing.

As always, we rise to our feet having completed the test to greet and welcome Bert S. so we can start the day’s lesson. There is no avoiding the fact that the curriculum is becoming more challenging and demanding more thought. This sparks a lot of class discussion on competitive advantage, market strategy and all things business. The “Issues and Tissues” session always brings about the same result: smiles and frowns.

Thursday (14 August 2014)

Class 21 VCP

A Prior Participant Receives Feedback on His Pitch From Executive Volunteers.

Pitches and paperwork were the order of the day for Class 22. Some volunteered to go before the class and practice their pitch while others were chosen. Most were great and showed much thought, preparation and practice. Some needed a little more development before the upcoming event. If one of our brothers went before the class and started to freeze up, we would clap and cheer as a demonstration of solidarity in moments of struggle. Sometimes this is all that is needed to motivate and inspire. The end of the day was met with cheers as we were reminded of the importance of the following day. V.C.P. was no longer a date to think about, but a reality less than 24 hours away. It will take nerves of steel to get a good night sleep tonight.

Friday (15 August 2014)

The day has come and with it all the excitement and nerves that always seem to be part of the vibe during events. Everyone was in his best pair of pajamas and ready to present a brief 2 ½ to 3 minute synopsis on his business plan to grab the attention of the executives and hopefully start a dialogue. However, before all of the festivities started we were all given something to add to our arsenal of professionalism: business cards. Our pictures were cast alongside our business name and jingle giving us the first tangible piece of evidence toward what we hope to accomplish. The majority of us have never had a business card and it brought an overwhelming sense of earned pride. It wasn’t long before the music started and the lights were flashing for the executives who were starting to file into the PEP room. They were met with high fives, handshakes and cheers as we prepared to start our second event. It was not long before Bert grabbed the microphone and took charge of the situation to bring order and organization. After the dance team showed their moves and an overview of the day was explained, we were all counted and separated into our room assignments. Each member of the panel would be given an evaluation sheet to help the participants improve their performance. The day closed with more dancing and cheers. Heartfelt stories were told by participants as well as volunteers, and it was hard to avoid the emotions that flooded the room. You can’t experience this anywhere else in the world.

Saturday (16 August 2014)

No rest for the weary; we were called out to the PEP room early Saturday morning for our third event. We had an opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with the volunteers in order to discuss our concepts or just build bonds. The mood in the PEP room was energetic as always, but with a drowsy side. Thanks to loud music, servant-leaders and Pat M’s dance motivation routine, the energy was turned up. We saw new faces as the executives were greeted, and most were a little nervous and still not sure what to expect from over a hundred men in blue pajamas acting so happy. A lot of the new faces represent Teach for America. This group of dedicated volunteers have taken typical educational placement and thrown all the rules out the window in order to make an impact in areas where some will not venture. Needless to say, they inspired us. It was obvious that they have the skills and compassion to teach even the hardest cases with their ability to listen and nurture others. Everyone gained great feedback from the great minds that volunteer to come and add value to our lives.


every man dies but not every man truly lives

Image from prior class.

Another week in the books as we all take in all that has taken place in the last few days. You never know what to expect from PEP. The most unlikely people will speak life into you, and it will change your whole outlook. Never did anyone come to this program thinking that it would impact them in the way that it has already in just a few short months. The revolution that we have all embraced as our own is making the impossible seem possible, one day at a time. From servant-leaders to Class 23 participants just arriving on the Unit, we are a band of brothers becoming the men we were created to be, and each one is an important piece of the puzzle. It will not be complete if one is missing. So we will stay the course and never give up! The work is definitely worth the reward.


The following was written by incarcerated men who are participating in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program‘s Class 22 “Business Plan Competition.”

Week in Review: Week 5

Monday (04 August 2014)

Toastmasters International

Toastmasters International

Once again, Transcendent 22 started the week with Toastmasters. Many are still anxious about public speaking, but everyone is getting better. We can already see how the fellow Toastmasters are beginning to work together by supporting each other. Most still have the uneasiness of speaking in front of a group, but the order of the meetings is getting smoother and looking sharper each week. Keep up the good work Class 22!

Tuesday (05 August 2014)

The computer lab is an important part of the class and a valuable resource that we have started to use. Robert, Grady and Peter are doing a great job in assuring a productive environment as we plod along through the lessons which, by the way, are fun and effective. After lunch put the finishing touches on our Coat of Arms.  We also took photos for our business plans and for our business cards. Each participant confirmed their jingle and business name. It’s all starting to become a reality, one step at a time.

Wednesday (06 August 2014)

Tissue, anyone? (Image via Creative Commons)

Tissue, anyone? (Image via Creative Commons)

Test day! Before we begin tackling the workload we always like to take some time to get all the birthday brothers to the back of the room. Then there was no talking and everything had to go under our seats, because – you guessed it – it was time to test everyone’s knowledge on Chapter 3 and all the handouts. While our scores were being compiled, Bert broke down Chapter 4 and, as usual, did a great job. Transcendent 22 was fully engaged and interested in the discussion. Of course, next on the agenda was the awaited “issues and tissues.” Like always, tests bring joy and tears. Let’s keep marching forward, Transcendent 22!

Thursday (07 August 2014)

Israel was back with us today and this time he brought Max to help us with all of our re-entry questions. While we have lost our “gangsta ways,” Max claimed that he is working on “becoming a little more gangsta.” He wasn’t up for any dancing, but he was hilarious. We filled out our re-entry forms and enjoyed the history videos about how our country was formed. Innovation is really part of the fabric of this country.

PEP's Manager of In-Prison Initiatives, Pat McGee

PEP’s Manager of In-Prison Initiatives, Pat McGee

Friday (08 August 2014)

We began by receiving instructions on the assignments handed out to us regarding our brochures and logos. Pat M. then asked for 10 volunteers to come to the front of the class, but there was no telling what he has in mind. The last time it turned out to be a dance crew. Today it turned out it was the beginning of our brothers giving their Venture Capital Plan (VCP) pitches. The first 10 quickly turned into 30 as people started to realize that this was the perfect opportunity to get over the fear of public speaking. We ended the day watching a video on George W. Bush and the mark he left on the country during his presidency. Another week in the books for Transcendent 22!


There is no greater joy in life than to add value to the lives of the people around you. Over the course of this journey learning how to become a true servant-leader is hard and it goes against everything this world teaches us. It’s amazing to see the metamorphosis take place. This revolution is changing men from the inside out. Transformation from the old life and mind-set to the next will prove to be the hardest road some will ever travel. Along the way we begin to realize that the most deadly traps are the ones we set for ourselves. PEP gives us the tools and the vision to avoid those traps and to pull our brothers out of harm’s way as well. We lead to see others succeed.

The following was written by incarcerated men who are participating in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program‘s Class 22 “Business Plan Competition.”

Week in Review: Week 4

Monday (28 July 2014)

Toastmasters International

Toastmasters International

Good afternoon Toastmasters! As we walked into the PEP room I could see on the guys’ faces that they were anxious about giving their first real speech. We still had a few brothers who needed to give their icebreaker speech and they were excellent. There was one speech given by Gerald “Boo Boo” about how to train your dog to sit and listen to your commands that was very interesting, detailed and clear. Everyone was attentive and seemed to enjoy the topic. Let’s not forget about the thank you cards that were passed out for all of Class 22 — no amount of preparation could have prepared us for those. Each day gets more and more exciting. “Go Transcendent 22”!

Tuesday (29 July 2014)

Today we were given a day off from class, but of course not from homework and studies. We studied the handouts that Bert S. gave us as well as continued reading in our entrepreneurship books. As I look around the dorm, brothers are in study groups and going from table to table asking if anyone needs help. How about that for unity? Everyone is still working hard to finish their thank you cards without any errors, which will result in more homework. The 2 ½ minute pitch looms just around the corner. No matter how difficult it may be, we will endure and keep moving forward.

Entrepreneurship A Small Business Approach textbook

Our textbook

Wednesday (30 July 2014)

Today, the atmosphere in the PEP room was that of seriousness for Transcendent 22. As soon as we sat down we were taking the Chapter One test, and when that was complete it was right on to Chapter Two. Then the unthinkable happened: a pop quiz for Chapter Three, or so we thought. That was a close call! Bert S. (a.k.a. Chocolate Truffles) started to lecture on Chapter Three, and the primary focus was on choosing a single business idea starting with a list of three to five ideas. Then, we are to identify one business on which to perform a due diligence analysis. The purpose of this is to see if a sufficient business opportunity exists and if you have the resources to take advantage of it. The spirit of being an entrepreneur has begun.

Old computer ad

Thursday(31 July 2014)

Transcendent Class 22 XXII started its first computer class today, and for some it was probably their first time ever to turn a computer on. For others, it was just another day at the office as they breezed right through their assignments. After that, we met with PEP’s Re-entry staff. Harvey M. and Luis A. gave us all helpful information about our transition into society. It’s good to hear from men who have been where we are and can tell us the obstacles we will face when we walk out the door. They went in-depth on what is expected from the men who are going to the transitional house and how to go about getting all the required documents to apply for jobs and start life again.

Friday (01 August 2014)

cover_tki_LAs we filed into the PEP room we broke up into our accountability groups to prepare for another session with Dr. Younker who holds a Ph.D. in industrial organizational psychology and is also a volunteer with PEP. We started session three of the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI), and today’s focus was on understanding and respecting individual differences and effectively managing conflict situations.  Then we switched gears and took a Thomas-Kilman conflict mode resolution assessment. It was designed to assess an individual’s behavior in conflict situations and helps people identify how different individuals tend to act when conflicts arise. Mike Potts said, “This is the meat and potatoes of what we are trying to accomplish.”

Saturday (02 August 2014)

Laura and Theresa

PEP Family Liaisons Laura Stiehl and Theresa Black

We were headed to the PEP room to finally meet with PEP’s Family Liaisons, who are two very important ladies within the PEP family. Theresa Black and Laura Stiehl are amazing. They introduced themselves and gave us a quick insight into their lives and why they enjoy doing what they do. It’s such a blessing to know there are people like our Family Liaisons who reach out to our families and help mend relationships. Looking around, the brothers were very excited about this day. Once again, brothers had a lot of questions, and after that we began our one-on-one interviews. It was a blessed day for Class 22 to be part of the revolution.

Sunday (03 August 2014

Today was the final day of our beloved Family Liaisons, as Laura and Theresa finished interviews with the brothers that didn’t get a chance to see them yesterday. It’s amazing to see the dedication that those two women put into helping us build our relationships stronger with our families. Just by looking into some of my brothers eyes I could tell how grateful they were to have this opportunity to become better men because of the PEP family. No matter what, we will persevere because that’s how Class Transcendent 22 does it!!


There is a Texas A&M quote that says, “From the outside looking in you can’t understand it, and from the inside looking out you can’t explain it.” I know that we all can relate to this feeling. As each of us transcend through different levels, it becomes harder to put into words the life transformation that we all experience in our own way. God is using PEP as a pen to write a new destiny in the heart of every man and woman who comes into contact with it.

The following was written by incarcerated men who are participating in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program‘s Class 22 “Business Plan Competition.”

Week in Review: Week 3

Monday (July 21, 2014)

Michael P. opened Toastmasters with a special prayer for Bobby C. of Class 9, who was in a bad motorcycle accident. We each gave a four to six minute speech called the “Ice Breaker.” Some of the guys were naturals at public speaking, while others had probably never spoken in front of a group of people before. You could feel both excitement and nervousness as we each got up and delivered our speeches. The ice breaker was a good topic because a lot of guys shared their backgrounds, interests and ambitions which allowed us as a whole to learn something about each other.

Tuesday (July 22, 2014)

We are moving along in our efforts to learn more about what is necessary to put together a proper business plan. One of our servant-leaders took to the lectern to give a PowerPoint presentation about what we would be expected to have completed in three weeks for the next big event, the Venture Capital Panel (VCP). We will need a company name, jingle, strategy and practiced pitch. In order to do those tasks we will look to our peers for help and support.

HAnding out grades

A prior PEP class (handing out test grades)

Wednesday (July 23, 2014)

The wait is over. The tests have started, and for some it’s reckoning day. Basic Business, chapters one and two were the order of the day as Bert S. came to see what we had retained. A test and a pop quiz – “welcome to PEP!” was the battle cry from the lips of our servant-leaders, who not long ago occupied our seats. After the tests, Bert presented the class with our lesson and took questions from us. There was no lack of ability or motivation to participate. Servant-leaders graded our tests as we continued to learn today’s material.

Thursday (July 24, 2014)

Transcendent 22 met at noon and it was Pat M. who was conducting the class. We were given our family liaison forms to fill out with the three people that we want PEP to contact. We were to evaluate the relationships with our family members now and in the future so that insight could be gained into how to approach those family members with love. Additionally, we filled out forms for our children to receive Christmas gifts, which is a true blessing. Israel gave a great presentation on accountability which really resonated with those who are still skeptical. The brotherhood is going strong as we saw photos of PEP brothers doing life outside. Whether it was skydiving or lending a helping hand to a brother in need, the network is held together tightly with love and accountability.


With the first few weeks on the books, I have watched as my PEP brothers have settled in to different roles everywhere. Servant-leaders have stepped up to fill the voids left by those gone home and to the Venus unit, but the greatest joy has been to watch as the PEP revolution starts to work its way inside even the worst of critics. Day by day we see the lights come on, the hope resurrected and the camaraderie formed as men start to unlock the gifts that God has placed inside of them. Class 22 is on pace to transcend all those before it, and it is up to every man to make sure nobody is left behind.

The following was written by incarcerated men who are participating in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program‘s Class 22 “Business Plan Competition.”

Week in Review: Week 2

Monday (July 14, 2014)

Toastmasters International

Today is the first day of Toastmasters for Transcendent 22.Toastmasters is an international organization that helps people improve their public speaking skills. Looking around the room, I see anticipation and excitement on the faces of my classmates. The class is very large and we are squeezed together tightly in a semicircle around the room in multiple rows. Servant-leaders demonstrate the duties we will assume in future meetings. Rolando T. opened with the definition of a servant-leader, Jerry H. was the Toastmaster for today and Mr. Arnold was our distinguished guest. Mr. Arnold, our public speaking mentor, talked about what it means to be a servant-leader. Andrew T. spoke on the importance of Toastmasters and the role it plays in the business plan competition. At the end of the day, we elected our own presidents for each session and vice presidents for each Toastmasters group.

Tuesday (July 15, 2014)

PEP Classroom with Coat of Arms

PEP Classroom with Coat of Arms

It was Throwback Tuesday for Transcendent 22. We took a trip down Nostalgia Boulevard and participated in arts and crafts. Glue sticks, glitter and stickers lay out on tables ready to be used for creating a “Coat of Arms.” We were tasked with creating our own personal Coat of Arms that would reflect the personality of each class member. For some this was a painful reminder of a lost youth, but for most it was smiles and yet another chance to build bonds with people who were strangers just weeks ago.

The day was not all arts and crafts, though. We were introduced to the resume and personal story portions of the business plan. We also continued to focus on our character. We will put into writing personal characteristics and flaws that need work. All these activities are important to the PEP development cycle that leads to success in business, as well as on a deep personal level. To be bankrupt in one aspect of life is to be bankrupt in all of life.

Bert Smith Teaching in PEP

Bert Smith Teaching a Prior Class in PEP

Wednesday (July 16, 2014)

Class 22 was all ears today as CEO Bert S. (a.k.a. Chocolate Truffles) arrived to deliver the inaugural lesson and show a glimpse of what lies ahead. There is no doubt about it: the next several months promise to bring stress, homework, sleepless nights and unrelenting assignments. Having the lessons delivered by a real professional, though, makes this adventure so very worth it! We are lucky to have such an incredible opportunity. To Bert, Class 22 sends a Transcendent thank you!

Entrepreneurship A Small Business Approach textbook

Our textbook

Thursday (July 17, 2014)

Wow, an unexpected day off! Well, that gives us more time to study and catch up on homework. Everybody on the dorm is digging into his entrepreneurship book or practicing the icebreaker speech for Toastmasters on Monday. A day off from the classroom doesn’t mean a day off from the books, especially with business plan assignments and our Venture Capital Panel event approaching.


Days of rest and weekends go unwritten, but the journal of our journey never stops. Transformation comes etched in our hearts as we grow in little ways, the dark, the empty and the large. Like peaks and valleys, activity is easily seen on the mountaintops, but much life and growth spring from the hidden paths. Schedules will change, curriculum will range from business to character development, activity will pick up and slow down, and people will come and go. Let it all be etched at all times throughout all of you. These are the depths, the steps, the work and rest, and the breaths of Transcendence.

The following was written by incarcerated men who are participating in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program’s Class 22 “Business Plan Competition.”

Week 1 in Review

Tuesday, 08 July 2014

We entered the PEP classroom surprised by the graduates lined up for us. They gave us high-fives, pats on the shoulders and hugs to welcome us to this new chapter in our lives. What a feeling! After all that, we gathered into groups by pods and had a dance-off in the center of the room. It was a surprise to see how many guys can dance – it was also a joke to see how many guys cannot dance.

The fun didn’t last too long, though. “Everything under your chairs, test time!”  We took the AP Style test and PEP’s Survival Rules test. The real test of the day came when Pat M. gave the entire class homework: two copies of AP Style, two business vocabulary lists and two 10 Driving Values lists. Basically, this is a lot of handwritten homework. We were surprised and curious when Pat gave us this minor test. Being Transcendent 22, though, we will get it done as part of our efforts to change our lives no matter what it takes.

Wednesday – 09 July 2014

Today, again, we walked into the PEP classroom, where different graduates showed up sharing the same PEP love as yesterday. Again, it was test time. After business vocabulary and personal finance tests, the fun began. Anyone up for balloon popping? What does balloon popping involve? Mass hysteria, adrenaline and tons of fun. Around the room men were all smiles and having fun. It is an amazing feeling to experience community, happiness and fun despite our circumstances.

Thursday – 10 July 2014

Testing, testing… Our final two tests were given. A collective sigh of relief was heard throughout the unit.

We were joined again by two members of the PEP staff to discuss their favorite of PEP’s 10 Driving Values. Kristie (a.k.a. Mimi) discussed Servant-Leader Mentality and showed a video on the life of Bill Crawford. Afterwards, Al (a.k.a. Granny Panties) shared his favorite Driving Value: “Fresh-Start” Outlook. Al told his story and shared his reasons for his dedication to the PEP way of life.

Friday –  11 July 2014

Class 22 was treated to a visit by Dr. John Younker today. Dr. Younker specializes in maximizing performance at the executive level in corporate America. He utilizes the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator in his approach to building and sustaining effective relationships. Class 22 was all ears as Dr. Younker explained the goal of his role in our development and future growth after release. Throughout this first week, the love and encouragement has been constant. The layers of a hardened outer skin are beginning to peel back. For the first time in a long time, the future looks amazing.


“Be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.”

– W.E.B. Du Bois

There is nothing so hopeful as a new beginning. From the guests through the tests to the chicken dancing, each step becomes a chance to participate in our own new creation – ourselves.

We send special thanks to PEP staff for their steadfast commitment to this revolution. Thank you for being here Kristie, Phi, Pat, Mike, Al, Marcus, Jeremy, and special guest Sara. Your participation in the Class Transcendent 22 internal kickoff makes you Transcendent.

The following was written by our incarcerated participants. It was originally written for their families, but we wanted to share it with you so that you can get a glimpse of what we do inside of prison… from the perspectives of our participants!


Week 10: Week in Review

Toastmasters International

Toastmasters International

Monday, March 10, 2014 — Toastmasters is evolving and competent speakers are emerging from the woodwork. The level of preparation from the speakers is increasing and the topics are vast and all-encompassing. This is coming from just the second round of speeches; once we reach the tenth round the metamorphosis will be astonishing. Everyone is doing great and the atmosphere is very relaxed as our bond of brotherhood allows us to speak comfortably to everyone present.

a9643c6b3146c8515bd2c53a38dc55b2Tuesday, March 11, 2014 — We have gotten into our groove with the entrepreneurship book. This is our second week in a row with a 90 test score average, a 92 to be exact for today. We have earned our namesake as Class “Triumphant” 21, for we are victorious and always prevail. We have almost reached the halfway mark of our class and I can’t help but think of the mantra for the Roman legions: “In Omnia Paratus,” which means “ready for all things.” By our actions we have proven that we are ready for all things and triumphant in everything we encounter.

Living in the Village by Ryan Mack

“Living in the Village” by Ryan Mack

Wednesday, March 12, 2014— Brian T. has been giving us tons of useful and beneficial information from our readings from Living in the Village. The importance of saving and investing becomes clearer and clearer as our studies progress. I know that we will take the information learned here and apply it all in our lives upon our release. The arsenal of new information we have gotten ensures only one thing: success!

Thursday, March 13, 2014 —We spent a majority of the day engulfed in educational videos. At the end of the day we had Pat M. and Marcus H. give us encouraging words which always recharge our batteries and prepare us for whatever comes our way. An important fact that Pat brought to our attention was that in a few months we will not graduate, instead we will go through a rite of passage. A graduation signifies finality; a rite of passage represents but a single step in a long journey through life.

Friday, March 14, 2014 — Today was a special movie day, as we were able to watch The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete. This was one of the best movies I have seen in a long time. I got caught up in the characters and their struggles to survive. It kept me guessing all through the movie as to what was going to happen next. In some way, form, or fashion all of us could relate to something that transpired on the screen.

Check out this trailer from the film here:


It’s nice to see the variety of fruit starting to manifest in Class 21 from all the seeds that PEP and all our brothers have been planting. Keep up all the good work, brothers!

The following was written by our incarcerated participants. It was originally written for their families, but we wanted to share it with you so that you can get a glimpse of what we do inside of prison… from the perspectives of our participants!


Week 9: Week in Review

smellyMonday, March 3, 2014 — After the furious pace of the past few weeks, it almost seems that we have hit a spot of smooth sailing. Is it the calm before the storm? Possibly, as this week will reveal the results of our character assessments. I can share from experience that it’s not always easy facing the character quirks others see in us. However, as all of those events began to unfold, we enjoyed another great day at Toastmasters.

I would like to give special recognition to four guys for the exceptional way in which they have grown during our brief tenure in Toastmasters. Geoffrey M., Rolando T., Clayton B., and Francisco M., your brothers would like to give you a public pat on the back. The transformation we are witnessing is remarkable. Here’s a Toastmasters toast to you. And may I also say that Michael G. should change his business plan to stand-up comedian. Michael gave a speech on the five levels of stench that had us all in stitches.

CHocolate Truffles Chocolate Truffles… Yummmm….

Tuesday, March 4, 2014— Freezing rain and slick streets couldn’t keep our CEO and business professor Bert S. (a.k.a. Chocolate Truffles) away. We were first tested on types of funding and basic accounting. Then Bert segued into another exciting lecture on marketing, pricing, and promotions. He also shared with us the incredible news that PEP will soon be launching another class at another unit in Texas. The PEP revolution is gaining momentum.

Cruella de VilPast graduate “Cruella de Vil” is a peer educator in PEP

Wednesday, March 5, 2014— As one-on-one feedback on our character assessments continued, we were business as usual with peer educator Brian T. leading us in a presentation on personal finance. We discussed eliminating high risk debt and properly utilizing credit cards while maximizing our credit score. We also discussed how to establish and meet our retirement goals. I think we all left with a much greater appreciation for IRA’s, 401(k)s and mutual funds. In fact, I dare say we are all starting to see that creating personal wealth is a very doable process; it’s just a matter of knowledge and discipline.

Thursday, March 6, 2014 — Today we watched videos on American history and applied biblical values, as well as a class favorite: the Swagger Wagon. If you haven’t seen the Toyota commercial entitled “Swagger Wagon,” I suggest you click here and check it out. I promise that you will never view the family mini-van the same. It never fails to leave us with a smile and our minds awhirl with ideas of how to spin our own products and services into a more favorable light.

You can also check it out here:


Friday, March 7, 2014 — After a short recap of the character assessment by our fearless leader, Pat M., we were given the day off. Yea! However, I suspect that we will spend a lot of time processing the feedback we gained from the character assessment with each other, which is probably the whole point of the exercise. Just as one must open up an old, festering wound to properly treat it and begin the act of healing, so are many of us right now. We are experiencing growing pains; but make no mistake, we are growing, and after all, we are TRIUMPHANT 21!!!!


Class 21 is going through a process that is very grueling, and I hope and pray that we all continue to look at our lives on a daily basis to identify what we really need in our journey of change. Because when you require restored hope and a new identity, you have to search for and plant new seeds so your life’s harvest will be bountiful and not pitiful. Identity is not something that is realized, it is something that results from decisions we make for ourselves and the individuals we place in our support system.