Posts Tagged ‘estes unit’

Class 20 graduate Mark L., a.k.a. "Sweet Homey the Clown"!

Class 20 graduate Mark L., a.k.a. “Sweet Homey the Clown”!

We have a very special “welcome home” post today!

Mark L. has been in prison since 10/1/1994 … and was released today. 20 years, 1 month, 13 days later.

This Class 20 graduate was actually granted parole earlier, but he **declined** it and opted to stay in prison. Why?

Because Mark had been chosen as one of 10 servant leaders (prior PEP graduates) to transfer to a new prison to help us launch a new program near Dallas, Texas. Mark “had a job to do and wanted to see it through to the end.” Read more about this here; Mark is also pictured below.

Thanks to Mark’s servant leadership, around 40 other inmates recently completed this new program in PEP. And today … after 7,349 days behind bars … Mark is free at last.

Welcome home, “Sweet Homey the Clown”!

PEP Graduate Servant Leaders at Estes Unit

Pictured with the other servant leaders who followed this call to open a new program, Mark L. is on the front row, bottom right,


Read similar testimonials from other graduates here.

The following was written by Sara Blair Matthews, who served as PEP’s first Creative Writing Instructor this past summer. .

sara blair matthews

I’m willing to wager that I have more prison experience than the average twenty one year old. I’ve been in four different units, interacted closely with around eighty prisoners, and have taught three creative writing courses. I’ve walked through metal security detectors more times than I can count, encountered dozens of questioning stares from guards, and have even gotten to walk across a few prison campuses on my own.  My family and friends have gotten used to hearing, “I’ll call you when I get out of prison” or “I had an amazing day in the unit!” However, few, if any, of them truly understand what it’s like to interact with incarcerated individuals day in and day out and see how they can change not only their lives but also the lives of volunteers each and every day.

After we met at a prison education conference, PEP’s CEO Bert Smith offered me a job with PEP. He felt that my passion for writing and innovation in starting a creative writing course at Muncy women’s prison (near my alma mater Bucknell University) could be an asset to PEP’s curriculum. After learning more about the company from my father, who had volunteered as a mentor a few years back, I eagerly accepted his offer and set about creating a syllabus that incorporated my love of literature and writing with PEP’s governing philosophy and driving values.

Although I had previously taught two creative writing courses at Muncy Women’s Prison, I was nervous about leading this course at a men’s unit. I wondered if they would be as open as the women were about sharing their stories and exploring their emotions. I scrutinized my syllabus and wondered if they would balk at some of the more dense readings like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden or poetry from Shakespeare. I prayed a lot in the weeks prior to my class and asked God to be with me during this time. I invited him into my heart to teach these men the power of mastering their emotions as well as their past and present through the writing process.

I immediately found that the men in my class were extremely open, intelligent, and eager to soak up what I taught them. They began to open up to me through their writing, and I grew more and more amazed by PEP’s ability to transform these men’s past traumas into power and determination to create a better future for themselves and their families.

Near one of our last classes, one of the guys asked me if they would all be getting certificates for completing the course. I told him that they would and that I was working on putting them together over the next few days. I told them it would be a great thing to show to future employers or maybe hang in their offices one day. The man who asked the question said that yes, this was true, but he really wanted the certificate, so he could have my signature on record. He said, “I know you’re going be a big shot writer some day, and I want to have proof that I took a class with you.” All the men chimed in and said “Yeah, remember us when you make it big.”

It was such an amazing moment for me- to look around the room and see all their love and support. I remember thinking that only my very closest family and friends were this vocal about their belief in me, and it rendered me speechless that these men were so appreciative and cared so much. I knew right then and there that if they channeled this much positivity, support, and love into their relationships on the outside that these men would make it out of the prison gates and into God’s everlasting kingdom.

The following was written by PEP volunteer, John Selzer, the Founding Director at Septariate (a company that he was inspired to launch through his involvement with PEP’s aspiring entrepreneurs).

John Selzer of Septariate

John Selzer speaking with participants of the PEP Leadership Academy in prison

I recently had the privilege to attend the Leadership Academy launch event at the Sanders Estes Unit in Venus, the site of PEP’s expansion into North Texas.  To me, this day was truly representative of the transformative power of this organization.  Our time was spent in what will become the dedicated PEP room.  The walls were painted white with fresh primer, awaiting the bright colors to come.  The floors were bare concrete, not yet covered in carpet.  The Ten Driving Values had not yet been posted in their typically prominent location.  It was almost poetic to have that perfectly blank slate.

Typically, executive volunteers are not introduced to program participants until the Leadership Academy is completed.  What a gift to meet and interact with the Investigators at this stage, most of whom were still struggling with their commitment to the program or whether or not they are “worth it” or “deserve this opportunity”.  It was PEP in its more pure and raw form.  Throughout the course of the day, the trepidation and uncertainty melted away and you could see – no, feel – the change in the room.  It was palpable – and electric.  I am not certain if the participants or the executive volunteers were more affected by the experience.  I still get chills thinking about it.

In the span of only four hours, a room full of skeptical, and still a little wary, participants broke through their doubts and embraced the power of PEP and left with a sense of purpose and a newfound optimism that they can take control of their future.  And maybe most importantly, they realized that they do not have to do it alone.  They now have a deep and mutually supportive connection to their brothers in the program and access to a broad network of executive volunteers that are there for them in prison and waiting upon their release.  For someone that has never been given anything without strings attached, this is a profound offering.  PEP represents an inflexion point in their lives.  That day at Sanders Estes, we witnessed the turn and the beginning of the upward slope.  That is powerful, and simply transformational, stuff.  What an incredible honor to have been a part of it.

My experience with PEP has been one of the most meaningful things I have ever done.

I leave each event feeling uplifted, hopeful, inspired and introspective.  It was during one drive home from Cleveland that I realized that I wanted to divert from my safe and secure career path to take a shot at the entrepreneur life.  Although this new chapter in my life is still being drafted, I hope that it affords me the opportunity to employ and mentor PEP graduates in a new way.  Regardless, I know that I will continue to be a regular at the Cleveland and Sanders Estes units.  I hope to see you in prison.

– John Selzer, Founding Director of Septariate, LLC


PEP Graduate Servant Leaders at Estes Unit
These ten men in white graduated from PEP’s Business Plan Competition at the Cleveland Correctional Center. When we announced that PEP was expanding to a second prison in North Texas, they courageously offered to transfer to the new unit to begin building PEP’s culture of life transformation.These Servant Leaders went from being among 300+ PEP guys on a 520-man unit to being the only 10 PEP guys on a 1,040-man unit.

And yet, with their help, we are rapidly spreading our impact across the prison. We already have 40+ other inmates recruited into PEP’s new Leadership Academy … and we anticipate many more over the coming years.

Please join us in thanking these amazing Servant Leaders!

NOTE: Standing behind them is Gami Jasso, our sole staff member at the new unit. Also… this photo was taken by Israel Thompson, who later blogged about the experience here.


Sanders Estes Unit in Venus, TX. (Prison Entrepreneurship Program)

The Estes Unit in Venus, TX is about 45 minutes away from Downtown Dallas. (Prison Entrepreneurship Program)

It’s official: PEP is launching operations in a second prison this month! ! !

Now in our 11th year of service, PEP recently secured approval from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to pursue this expansion. We have spent the past few months in a quiet planning mode with the leadership from MTC, the private operators of the Sanders “Sandy” Estes Unit (a TDCJ prison) in Venus, TX. Representatives from their team met with PEP’s leadership team, and the Warden even visited our existing program in the Cleveland Correctional Center to see PEP in action.

Yesterday, our staff met with the team at the Estes Unit to finalize plans for our launch. We have already transferred 10 servant leaders (past graduates) there to guide the program’s first class of forty participants through PEP’s new “Leadership Academy.” These incarcerated men are taking on the critical task of building PEP’s culture within this new unit. . . which is only 45-60 minutes away from Downtown Dallas!

The task will be a challenging one in some ways. With 1,040 beds, the Estes Unit is twice the size of the Cleveland Correctional Center where PEP has offered our in-prison initiatives for the past several years. The ratio of PEP-to-General-Population also drops from 3-to-2 down to 1-to-20+.

But we believe firmly that our ten Servant Leaders are up to the task. They will also be guided by a full-time staff member: PEP graduate Gami Jasso, who has returned to PEP for his third “tour of duty” with the organization (Gami is formerly a re-entry manager for the Dallas area who will now serve as the manager for our in-prison initiatives at the Estes Unit; he returns to PEP after serving in a similar role for adjudicated youth involved in Youth Village Resources of Dallas).

The team at MTC has also been fully supportive of our efforts; their leadership team has been especially committed to our mission of transforming the lives of incarcerated men and their families, so we anticipate this new effort will be very successful.

That said — we still need your prayers and your financial support to make this effort a success:

Formerly known as “Effective Leadership,” the Leadership Academy (“LA”) now serves as a three-month precursor to PEP‘s full Business Plan Competition (“BPC”) program. PEP first piloted the LA inside the Cleveland Unit (where PEP currently operates the BPC), and we are now expanding it to the Estes Unit in order to reach a larger population.

In some ways, LA serves as a sort of “junior college” to prepare participants for the full BPC. LA is only 20 hours per week (compared to BPC’s 40+), and the program is entirely focused on character development rather than entrepreneurship. This approach helps PEP to emphasize our belief that the foundation for all lasting professional success is a person’s character. 

LA will involve three core initiatives:

  • Driving Values: The foundation for PEP’s character development efforts are its 10 Driving Values.
  • Effective Leadership: Using a curriculum that was developed by PEP on the basis of classic leadership texts such as “True North” (by Bill George and Peter Sims), this curriculum guides participants through an intense period of self-assessment and personal transformation.
  • Men’s Life: Also known as “Men’s Fraternity,” this program utilizes a curriculum developed by Dr. Robert Lewis called The Quest for Authentic Manhood. The program is based on Biblical principles and uses Jesus Christ as the model for manhood, but it is open to people of all faiths (or no faith). PEP considers itself “faith infused” but not expressly evangelical (i.e. no religious commitment is required for inmates to successfully complete any of our programs). Men’s Life is also open to the entire prison, including men who are not currently involved in PEP.

Graduates of the LA will then become eligible for the BPC in Cleveland.

Eventually, we plan for the Estes Unit to grow into a full BPC campus. Based on the success of this initial launch, we will then look to replicate the LA into other prisons around the state … effectively building a feeder system of qualified participants for PEP. This will allow PEP to rapidly and cost-effectively scale our impact across the Texas prison system.

You can make a donation to support this effort at

Please COMMENT with anything you’d like for us to share with these amazing leaders. Favorite quotes, encouraging notes and words of wisdom welcome!

UPDATE: Click here to read about the 10 graduates who volunteered to transfer to the Estes Unit to help PEP launch this new program.