Posts Tagged ‘guest blogger’

My name is Jason and I was asked to write about my experience with PEP. When considering how a program has changed your life, it is easy to get caught up in the rites and rituals and begin to think of that program, any program, as a series of steps to be taken to reach a goal.

To me, PEP is so much more than that. To be sure, there are procedures and there are rites of passage, but I cannot look at these as mere steps; they are tools to be used, remembered, called upon in times of need, and passed on to those who come after us. PEP is a living, breathing entity embodied by the men trying to change their lives, the PEP staff, and the volunteers that offer so much encouragement.

Jason Bowles

I joined the Navy at 18, straight out of high school, and thought that I had the world pretty much figured out. The problem was that there was one thing I did not completely understand; I had no real idea of who I was. I allowed myself to be defined by the people around me and when I did not fit in with them, a few drinks made everything go a little more smoothly. I had no intention of becoming an alcoholic, but then who does?

Fast forward a couple of decades and my life was in shambles. I had spent the greater part of my adult life either on a barstool, recovering from my last hangover, or planning my next one. I knew my life was wasted and going nowhere, but I had no earthly idea how to change it, so I took the easy way and did nothing to make any improvements whatsoever. Like alcoholics the world over, I hid in a bottle and perpetuated my downward spiral.

I had never thought of myself as someone who would end up in prison and I certainly never saw incarceration as any kind of rescue. Like most of society, I viewed the penal system as a way to deal with people who did not want to play by the rules. Also like most of society, I was blind to my own hypocrisy and ignored the fact that I was no paragon of virtue.

Because of my continued alcohol abuse, I quickly learned how easily one can be sucked in and spit out by the judicial system. I also learned there is hope for everyone, no matter if they are locked in a cell by the state or locked into a pattern of self-destruction by their own choices. Hope abounds for anyone willing to work to make a better life.

For me, PEP is a life saver. I learned how much I was truly hurting myself and everyone around me by finding excuses to indulge in my weaknesses. I learned that I can be a part of a group without having to be just like everyone in it. I found out that fitting in does not mean conforming, it means contributing. Most importantly, I learned how to live with the fact that I am flawed. I have made mistakes in the past and I will make more in the future, but those mistakes do not define me; how I recover from them does.

My name is Jason and I am many things; a veteran, a son, a brother, an alcoholic, a convicted felon, a PEP graduate and a productive member of society.

Jason B.
Class 18 Graduate

The following was written by MBA student and executive volunteer, Michael Collins, about his first experience inside prison and how it pushed him outside his comfort zone.


About two years ago I was introduced to the Prison Entrepreneurship Program by my father, who swore to me that my experience with PEP would change my life. He couldn’t have said a truer statement.

The purpose of this organization is to help those who are incarcerated create jobs for themselves once they are released from prison. This is especially important, as most men find it extremely difficult to find employment after transitioning back into society. As a result of this hardship, over half return to prison. To combat this problem, the PEP program equips men with entrepreneurial tools to start their own businesses once released. Similar to the television show, “Shark Tank,” executive volunteers, ranging from CEO’s of globally recognizable companies to graduate students, critique the mens’ business plans and pitches in a competitive setting at the culmination of the program.

Growing up in a white, privileged family, I didn’t have much exposure to individuals who had committed crimes or gone to prison. It was a side of the world which I had really been sheltered from, so as I walked into the facility for the first time, my heart began to beat faster and faster in anticipation. Despite my expectation of being treated like a law-abiding civilian, I was abruptly awakened by the serious tone and treatment by the guards as we were pat-searched and ordered to go through a metal detector.

The other executive volunteers and I then walked down a hallway and into a room, where we were welcomed by the men participating in the program, all cheering and celebrating our presence. After we all got settled, the CEO of PEP began to talk about the program and the agenda for the day. We began with some getting-to-know-you exercises, along with some “surprises” to really get us out of our comfort zones, which were instrumental in breaking down the apprehension I knew existed amongst some of the volunteers in attendance. By the end of this segment, I began to not only see the appreciation the guys had for us being there, but I could also feel the gratitude. It was at this moment I knew this experience was already changing my life.

For the next five hours I spent time meeting with about twenty different inmates one-on-one to hear their business plans and provide feedback. This part of my experience in prison was extremely powerful, as my very distinct perception of inmates changed so drastically. The hours flew by, and I felt like I wasn’t in a prison anymore at all. The men I spoke with were some of the most articulate and personable people I’d ever met, and by the end of the day, it felt like I had just spent my time catching up with old friends. Then, the volunteers were asked to step aside, and the inmates were ordered to file into lines for a count: an eye-opening reality check that I’ll never forget. The atmosphere did a complete 180, and the room went from being a warm social setting with friends, to a cold and harsh prison almost instantly. The men I had just became friends with, and laughed with, were now being treated like rabid animals.

As I drove home from the prison, I struggled mentally to comprehend everything that had occurred while I was there. About a day or two later, I finally understood what all the volunteers had talked about; I could feel how I had changed. All my perspectives and preconceived notions about prisoners had been erased, as the passion and effort I saw from those men rivaled those of famous entrepreneurs.

My experience in prison not only changed my life, but it taught me a lot. I learned that uncomfortable situations are only as stressful as you make them out to be, and that no matter where two people come from, there’s always something you can find you have in common. Since that day I first stepped into that prison, I have been back three times, each less stressful and more enjoyable than the last. But no trip back will ever match my first experience inside those walls, a memory I will always hold dear to my heart.

Mike Collins

The following was written by Tim Tucker, Message South Africa National Director for The Message Trust. You can learn more about this organization on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


Tim Tucker South Africa Message Trust

Tim Tucker, from South Africa’s “The Message Trust”

PEP Pitch Day, Friday 14th November 2014.

Cape Town to Amsterdam. Amsterdam to Atlanta. Atlanta to Dallas. Dallas to Houston and Houston to Cleveland Correctional Center. It was a long trip. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Yes. Definitely. Without a doubt.

My organisation (www.message.org.za) runs programs for juvenile offenders in Cape Town, South Africa. This “pilgrimage” to Texas was to learn from PEP as we seek to deliver a similar programme in Cape Town’s prisons. Notorious for gangsterism, drug dealing and violent crime, we are constantly seeking to improve our interventions in Cape Town’s prisons in order to provide a greater opportunity for ex-offenders to be reintegrated into society. My exposure to PEP’s model greatly inspired and impacted me.

What I experienced was a wonderful blend of the PEP brotherhood, an extremely effective program, and the added dimension of an incredible spirit of determined and deliberate fun, that is a powerful recipe for rehabilitation. From the moment I was greeted by the most moving “guard of honor” I’ve ever experienced (loud music, cheering, and high-fiving the PEP participants), I recognised that PEP has developed something special. As Bert danced to the front to introduce the day, I realised that my British reserve needed to be shelved if I was going to maximise my experience. And from that moment on I was completely absorbed in all that took place.

But I was soon to learn that PEP is not just about feel-good motivational music, dancing, clapping, high-fiving and hoorah’s! We were split up into our various groups to listen to the pitches that the participants had prepared after five months of hard work. The first candidate began his presentation. His concept was well thought through and he presented in an articulate and compelling way. The executive next to me, John-  an experienced PEP business mentor – nudged me and whispered, “that will be one of the best two or three presentations today.” Boy was he wrong! After the next presentation he nudged me again… “wow” he said, “that will also be up there.” After the third equally high calibre presentation he was realising that he would need to eat his words! It was humbling and inspiring to listen to pitch after pitch that had been well thought through and matched the passion and gifting of each participant – together with some great innovative ideas. Scoring them was tough – particularly as, following John’s input, I gave the first participant extremely high marks…

As we gathered once more with the big group, it was evident that each executive had been greatly impacted and impressed. What was also evident is that I wasn’t going to escape from prison without the initiation of dancing… as all us “newbies” were summoned to dance forward. But it was a great privilege to be handed the microphone to share with everyone that the lessons learned on that day were going to make a tangible difference in South African prisons – although I know that South African dancing will eclipse the Texan two-step!

— Tim Tucker (Message Trust)

The following was written by PEP volunteer, Jessica Middleton. Jessica is a Criminologist and Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology.


jessica middleton

There were several elements of that day that really struck me.  First of all, the dancing…  I have always been a firm believer in the healing power of dance.  When I was trudging through the darkest phase of my own life, it was dance that kept my spirit alive – salsa dancing in particular, but regardless of the method of dance, it is a healthy and accepted vessel for expression and release.  It puts a smile on your face and doesn’t ask for anything in return other than the pure enjoyment of its recipients.

I first heard about the coined concept of “social distance reduction” from Dr. Everette B. Penn, Criminologist and Professor at University of Houston-Clear Lake.  Dr. Penn was not only my professor, but also my academic mentor, always throwing extra tasks and challenges my way, I believe, just to see what exactly I was made of.  The first day we met, before I even began the Criminology program, mind you, I’m still just a Business Leadership/Management graduate, he instructed me to a  to write an entry for the African American Encyclopedia of Criminal Justice on the topic of “crime prevention.”  I knew absolutely nothing about criminology or criminal justice, much less that there was a difference between the two, but I had already claimed to be a strong researcher, therefore it was time to sink or swim!

Believe it or not, my submission was accepted into the encyclopedia which was simply miraculous, and I guess my submission had enough legitimate information to be published – WOW!

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Penn donned me as Managing Editor of a special issue academic journal called Criminal Justice Studies: A Critical Journal of Crime, Law and Society, which was a pain, but Dr. Penn knew exactly what he was doing – giving me a REAL taste of  research, editing, and publication.  The ins and outs.  The peer reviews.  The rejections.  The unreturned voicemails and emails.  The absurdity of some of the so-called scholarly writing I had to drudge through.  He knew that again, I would decide to sink or swim.  I believe I swam…well, maybe doggie paddled.  Perhaps I just stayed afloat, who knows?  But the publication now rests in my library, so let’s get back to social distance…

So several UHCL scholars and innovators teamed up with community forces to create the Teen and Police Service Academy, also known as TAPS Academy.  The overarching goal of TAPS Academy is to reduce the social distance between teens and law enforcement.  Theoretically, this should subsequently reduce crime.  Since I’ve not attempted to get my hands on any data testing TAPS impact, I cannot speak to the effectiveness of this particular program, but I can with full conviction say there is something mysteriously powerful about this “reducing social distance” concept.

I say all of that to say…drumroll please…reducing social distance, whether PEP recognizes it or not, is the cornerstone of this program that makes it so different than others, and envied by all.  You can teach a man how to write a business plan until you’re blue in face, but give him a mentor, a genuine accountability partner and a dedicated teacher all wrapped into one, and now we’re talkin’!

There is real, live, living power when you bridge such a chasm.  Social distance murders more relationships than do actual felons, but PEP…PEP is the bridge that slowly dissolves this ugly, unnecessary social distance that only divides us.  There is something very interesting going on here in Cleveland…something very peculiar…something I have never seen before.  Dare I call it special?  I mean, this is the stuff criminologist DREAM about!  Where did this come from?  I feel guilty for not knowing about previously, when I genuinely thought I was somewhat savvy when it came to TDCJ programs based on my research, thesis, etc.

But PEP…was flying under the radar…they had to be or else I would have been made aware of this a long time ago, and it embarrasses me, as a Criminologist and CRIM/CJ Professor, that I was not aware of PEP.  It was flying right underneath my nose. I am still disappointed and heartbroken that it took 20 classes for me to become a complete heart, mind, body investor in PEP.   But hey, God works, and it’s typically mysterious when it comes to my understanding, so I have learned to just say, “Thank you for the time I have been given.”

I can only hope that you all, PEP participants present, past, and future, feel the same way.  Gratitude is a stronger force than you know.  And on that note, since I am only a Criminologist, I will then hand it over to the Coaches, etc., to do their thang’.  I love you all dearly.

Warm Regards,

Jessica E. Middleton, M.A. 

The following was written by PEP volunteer, Jessica Middleton. Jessica is a Criminologist and Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology.


jessica middleton“Who hasn’t danced in prison?” Al asked.  Was I going to raise my hand?  No way!  I had a pretty good idea of what might happen if I did; I mean, why else would someone ask that question?!  Again, no way!  Not happening.  I crossed my arms over my chest and tried to play it cool.  Don’t get me wrong, anyone who knows me know that I am a dancing queen, but this was just a little too outside of my comfort zone.  I have spent the last seven years visiting the Goree Unit in Huntsville and Hightower Unit in Dayton, where my experience inside the walls has consistently been structured, rigid, and sterile to say the least.  Why would I expect anything to be different on this day?  Well, I wouldn’t, and I didn’t.  Now imagine Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman when she says, “Big mistake, HUGE.”

8:30am – I arrive at the unit, find a parking spot, make sure my car doors are locked and that I have nothing on my person but proper identification and my car keys.  That’s it.  That’s all TDCJ allows.  The executive volunteers gathered in the front foyer and then were search and processed through the metal detector one by one.  Standard protocol, no biggie.

I found myself in the first group of volunteers to be escorted to the chow hall.  Upon arrival to the chow hall, the door is locked, but by the sound of it, the hall is full, and several inmates try to unlock and open the door.  Ok – hold up!  Inmates are NOT allowed to operate the doors, so I immediately begin to question what is going on and what is about to ensue.

I thought that the breakfast hour would just be a quiet start to the day comprised of sipping coffee and mingling with other Executive Volunteers.  Us over here, them over there.  Keep your hands to yourself, and avoid extended eye contact.  Nope.  The door finally unjammed, Keep your hands to yourself, and avoid eye contact with inmates.  Umm, no.

The chow hall was filled wall to wall with PEP participants, the perimeter lined with high fives and hand shakes, clapping, smiling, and cheering.  Confuzzled was an understatement on my parr.  I was the second volunteer to enter the chow hall, and was greeted by the inmates with repeated “Good morning, thank you for coming, we’re so glad you’re here,” along with joyous bursts of hoops and hollers, photo ops, loud party music, dancing, and smiles galore.  Two questions:  Where was I, and what was going on?!?

The first of two photo ops was solo; I was holding a sign that read something along the lines of “I was caught being good at the Cleveland Correctional Center.”  I could be way off here, but that part seems a blur to me as I successfully entered shock mode.  The second photo op was in front of several PEP banners, with four guys wearing blue.  I felt embarrassed when the photographer motioned to me to scooch in a little closer to the group.  God, I hoped my insecurity was not dangling ferociously on my sleeve, but apparently it was.

It must have also been written all over my suspecting face that I was a “new fish” because several PEP’ers asked me if that was my first time joining PEP.  Yep.  They had me pegged.  Great…

In the chow hall were members of Class XX, who were graduating that day, as well as graduated members of Class XIIIV who were awaiting release.  Class members were distinguished by their name badges.  Class XIIIIV guys had the title “Servant Leader” under their name; They were in charge of serving breakfast and coffee.  I can honestly say that was the first time I have ever been waited on by an inmate, and the one particular gentleman who brought me coffee was unusually kind, attentive and meek.  He took his “servant leader” title seriously, and he visibly embraced and embodied it fully.  What a strong example he set for not only the members of Class XX, but for every single person in the chow hall.  Goes to show that powerful leadership does not necessarily come in the form of a decorated spokesperson.  It was refreshing and humbling; I felt unworthy of such service…

During the breakfast hour, I had the opportunity to speak with several of the Class XX participants.  Like I said, they had me pegged, so they attempted to break the ice by approaching me, and every single one of them thanked me profusely for joining that day.  Their gratitude, positivity, and the obvious, yet mysterious hope in their eyes displaced the shame and desolation I am accustomed to seeing when working with inmates.  It was fascinating, really.  One young man asked me what made me to want to study and teach Criminology/Criminal Justice upon disclosure of my profession.  I disclosed that a family member of mine was constantly in-and-out of prison, and that I was fascinated with the system and the causation of crime.  Could my answer get any more canned and seemingly rehearsed?  Geez…  At that point, I was still feeling a bit suspicious of my environment, perhaps a bit uncomfortable, because this visit was unusually relaxed in comparison to my previous prison visits.  The warmth and friendliness admittedly took me a little while to accept and embrace.

As the breakfast hour came to a close, the PEP’ers exited the chow hall and prepared for the gathering across the hallway.  I don’t recall exactly what the room was called, but for now I’ll call it the “PEP Hall of Hope,” where the four finalists from the Business Plan Competition would present to all PEP’ers and executive volunteers alike.  I could have never imagined what would happen next…

Strobe lights.  Music.  Dancing.  Clapping.  Cheering.  Laughter.  Wait…dancing?  Yes, you read that right.  Dancing!!  The inmates were getting their groove on!  The PEP Hall of Hope was set up like a chapel, with a center aisle that doubled as the dance floor.  It was like church and club collide.

Eventually everyone found their seat and the enthusiasm quieted to an obedient hush, until several  PEP’ers introduced themselves with their “sweet names” and the entire class would respond back with individualized slogans and/or chants.  This caught me off guard, but I was entertained and deeply impressed at the same time, as this was when the brotherhood and camaraderie of this group became apparent.  For example, the one that stands out most to me is the introduction of “Sweet Kirk Franklin.”

Sweet Kirk: “Hello, I am Sweet Kirk Franklin. GP are ya’ with me?”

Class XX: “Oh yeah, we havin’ church, we ain’t goin’ nowhere!”

At which point I caught myself automatically chanting along.  Woops!

After a few other introductions, the Business Plan Competition (BPC) finalists took center stage and presented their pitches.  All four were terrific.  Really.  Each executive volunteer “judge” had $10,000 “prison bucks” to allocate accordingly to each of the entrepreneurs.  It was essentially “prison shark tank.”  Way cool…  The “prison bucks” did not have any legitimate monetary value, but the winner of the competition would win serious bragging rights!

Let me back up…  Right before the BPC finals began was when Al asked “Who has never danced in prison?”  Several brave souls raised their hands.  Not me!  As clearly indicated in my first paragraph.  Those brave hand-raisers were then instructed to proceed to the back of the room so they could soul-train down the center aisle.  I KNEW IT!!!  Once they all made it to the front of the room, they were asked to share who they were, what they did, and how they were invited to attend the BPC – which I later learned is by invitation only.

So the hand-raisers shared their introductions, and while I may not have been comfortable dancing in prison just yet, speaking to large groups of inmates is something I have become quite used to, so I contemplated jumping in the introduction line although I did not sachay down the center aisle.  Finally, I elevated from my seat and placed myself at the end of the introduction line because it was already evident that I was a rookie, and figured it was better to get the formal introduction out of the way sooner than later.  I started with my name and apologizing for not getting up to dance.  The PEP’ers let out a loud and united “BOO!!” when I replied, “At least I’m being honest, and isn’t honesty one of PEP’s core values?”  It was more comical than serious, so I continued by sharing some personal info and expressing my fondness for the program, along with a few other words of encouragement for Class XX based on what I had witnessed thus far.

I suspect that is when the ice broke for me; when I made myself vulnerable.  Before I sat down, Al gave me a big hug and said into the microphone, “You owe me a dance next time!”  Yes Al, yes I do.  Next time, you’re gonna’ wish I had left my dancin’ shoes at home!

Warm Regards,

 

Jessica E. Middleton, M.A. 

The following was written by PEP volunteer, Jessica Middleton. Jessica is a Criminologist and Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology.It was originally posted here.


THE 11TH DRIVING VALUE – VULNERABILITY

#PEP Reflections 8.15.14 Venture Capital Panel Class XXII – Cleveland Correctional Center

Today was absolutely phenomenal!  First of all, the 2 minute pitches I heard were terrific; sure there were some nerves running wild, as many of these guys have never given a business plan pitch in their lives, much less to a panel of well dressed, real world, should-be-too-good-for-prison professionals and executives…but the meeting of the minds today was truly the eighth wonder of the world…

The vulnerability and intimacy established this early on between the participants and the executives is really quite unbelievable.  The acceptance and anticipation today, again, exuding from both sides of the room, to me was equivalent to what you would expect at the six-month BPC/graduation mark…and we’re only ONE month in!  And the tunnel of love…WOW!  It made a complete track around the PEP room.  It was massive with 118 guys – that’s 236 hands in the air to be high fived!

During the “sweet time”, one young man shared that he nearly quit PEP just a few days ago, but a few brothers lifted him up; I can still see the arm motion he made when he said that, and then he became silent and dropped his head.  The entire room responded with a standing ovation in support. I truly believe that moment is one that he will remember for his lifetime, and I hope that next time he becomes discouraged, as we all do along the way, he will hear the holy roar of clapping and hollering and decide to get up and press on.  Now and then, there are moments when the Spirit floods the PEP room; that was one of them.

An encounter that has really been on my mind, with intrigue of course, not disturbance, was when one participant made an intentional effort to find me at the end of the day to share something that had been on his heart.  He and I got to chat one-on-one at the KickOff, so the familiarity already existed.  He said, and this is not word-for-word, it is what I can remember paraphrased:

“Ms. Jessica, I wanted to make sure to tell you something since we talked at the KickOff.  I was chatting with one of the other guys here, and I heard a little about your story.”  He takes a deep breath and then continues, “My daughter is in a similar situation.  She’s 17, and she just dropped out of high school.  She is having a really hard time.”  I could sense a request for help coming next, and I was prepared to respond with the suggested PEP apology that we cannot make those kinds of promises, blah, blah, blah…  But he didn’t.  He confessed, “I’ve been the ‘amusement park’ dad, and I want to do better.  Your story makes me want to be a better father.”

Ok… I did not see that coming.  This massive dude is towering over me, probably 20 years my senior, and made himself humble and vulnerable before me.  It definitely took my breath away.  Keep in mind, I’m not even entirely sure to what he was referring, but I know for a fact there is no way he is referencing my entire story…  It’s just not possible at this point in the game.  But to be honest, it doesn’t matter.  If this man is inspired to be a better father based on something – anything – he heard about me, then let all of God’s people say hallelujah and amen!  I hate that I cannot remember his name right now, but I know his pitch, and I think he is a contender for the finals. J    

After the guys cleared the PEP room and headed to chow, the CEO, Chief Empowerment Officer, Bert, talked for a few minutes with the executives.  As he shared about the recent Estes Unit expansion, he explained what this first PEP dendritic class is currently doing.  He described the Authentic Man curriculum and went on to discuss how the guys start setting goals by beginning with the end – writing their own eulogy given their present day situation.  As Bert was painting this picture of despair with his words, I began to feel the air sucked out of me…  This is a heavy task, to write a eulogy about someone who has made such seemingly unimaginable mistakes, forfeited time with loved ones, and been incapable of providing for family due to incarceration.  I know this because I recently wrote my father’s eulogy, and it was the second most disgraceful thing I have ever written.

The eulogies that the PEP guys write are preliminary of course, and adjustable; it’s just an exercise. My father’s eulogy is probably worse that what any of the PEP guys would write about themselves, and it’s final.  It won’t change, ever.  Nor will his legacy, or the way we all feel about him, his life, his decisions.  It is finished.  But these PEP guys, they still have a chance to redesign their legacy and rewrite their eulogy.  I hope, from the bottom of my heart, they understand the magnitude of the opportunity they have before them.  

The question I hear over and over at PEP events is, “Ms. Jessica, what keeps you coming back?”  I just kind of shrug and say, “Oh, it’s a LOOOONG story, but for now, just please know that I believe in P-E-P and I believe in Y-O-U!”  Maybe one day, I will have the opportunity to share more with Class XXII, since after all, it is vulnerability that binds us; it is the glue that makes that middle aisle a dance floor and not a great class divide.  I am willing, and I know that if it is meant to happen, it will…all in timing divine.  #Steptotheline

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 was written by a new volunteer to PEP: William Brant Wallace, PhD, the COO and Treasurer of e-World Systems Ltd. Brant is also officially the 100th person to join the PEP Partners program, through which he and others make monthly gifts to sustain and grow PEP’s mission. You can learn more about this program here.


 Matthew 25:36 (NIV):
I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

Thought-

I spent the day in a State of Texas prison yesterday.

A friend and colleague (thank you Keith) invited me to attend what he described as “Shark Tank in Prison”. The day was called ‘Pitch Day’ and was organized, run, and hosted by the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (www.pep.org).

Not knowing much about the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, although my friend gave an extensive briefing on the way to the state penitentiary, I was pensive. Once we arrived, we were asked to exchange our driver’s licenses for issued ID’s, remove everything out of our pockets, take off jackets and shoes, walked through metal detectors, were pat down, and, as very large and heavy metal doors slid shut and locked behind us, we were escorted to interior rooms of the prison. Having been a guest of Harris County Texas several times in my life, this experience was a little unsettling.

As we settled in, a group of 60 business owners and executives interacted with 77 inmates of varying backgrounds. These prisoners were welcoming, excited to see us, were pleasant to interact with, and, equipped with a purpose and months of preparation, were smiling and having fun. As the 20th class of the program, the prisoners were selected from several thousand applicants from around the State of Texas’ prison system. Once accepted, they had undergone rigorous education, training, peer character assessments, and were asked to create a business plan.

Yesterday, they pitched their business plans to panels of people like me. We coached and critiqued their presentations, pitches, and plans. After the panel members had heard all of the pitches, we were given an opportunity to speak with them one-on-one.

When I spoke with them one-on-one, it no longer felt like I was speaking to someone in prison but like I was speaking to an emerging entrepreneur asking for guidance, a shot, and capital. As a matter of fact, they were more receptive and prepared than most entrepreneurs that I hear from on a daily basis. As the day concluded, we heard reflections from various executives and prisoners. After the prisoners were escorted out and went back to their daily routines, we were asked to consider continued support and involvement of PEP (http://tnzr.us/7r).

This morning, I felt compelled to share a little of my PEP experience and to ask that as our weekend begins, that we remember to give a chance and hope to those who are in need, sick, and in prison.

Prayer-

Father God, thank you for calling us to give clothes to those in need, to look after the sick, and to visit those in prison. Thank you for using us to give hope to the needy, the sick, and prisoners and captives. As we are consumed by our busy lives, please help us to remember your charge. Through following your charge, please teach us to take the time to work with those less fortunate than ourselves. In doing so, please guide us to follow Christ’s example by giving the most unlikely members of society a chance and a shot. All of this we ask in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

The following was written by Lance Manning, a member of the PEP Dallas Advisory Board who works as a R&D startup consultant with the Larta Institute. 


Recently, thousands gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “March on Washington”.  Our nation considered the purpose of the original event and what it meant for civil rights.  Video clips of the “Dream” speech reminded us of the vision for unity, compassion, and equality for all citizens in this great nation. 

During the same week, I attended an event in Dallas for the Prison Entrepreneurship Program hosted by the Communities Foundation of Texas.  We were there to celebrate the United Way of Dallas’ three-year, $750,000 investment in PEP.  Local leaders in business, government, and philanthropy attended and learned about the origins of the Program and heard the personal testimonies of some of our graduates.

John M. told of his many trips to prison and how he’s determined not to go back.  Because of his choices, he lost people dear to him and hope for a good life.  Graduating from PEP and getting a job upon release gave him hope.  He is the first felon hired by a local auto dealership who changed their hiring policy because of the Program’s reputation.  He has been promoted and asked to consider this as his career track.  He now speaks of being strengthened to live up to the expectations the PEP community has for him.

Clarence C. is a very grateful man who has recovered from some bad choices made earlier in life.  The entrepreneurship skills he has honed through the Program motivated him to start a services franchise business.  PEP gave him the know-how and motivation to pursue his dream and be an entrepreneur.  Later this month, he will be on the Steve Harvey Show to share his story.

As I sat in the audience, I wondered about the “dream” of Dr. King.  What did he want for future generations?  I felt impressed that our Program – executives helping the encarcerated help themselves -might be part of his vision.  The handshake of brotherhood that is PEP symbolizes hope, encouragement, and economic prosperity for hundreds of men and countless others in their circles of influence.

The message conveyed on this souvenir pin from 50 years ago was a driving motivation for the march and is a modern-day emblem of the power of entrepreneurship reflected in the ongoing success of the Program.

Entrepreneurship is a proactive quality championed by self-reliance, faith, confidence, and the power to take charge of one’s economic future.  It’s not about waiting for the government to do something.  President John F. Kennedy said it best, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  Helping others achieve economic self-reliance when much of society has turned their back on them is what PEP is about.

The dream for jobs, freedom, and economic prosperity is alive and well in Texas.

Fellow entrepreneur and Dallas Maverick’s owner, Mark Cuban, spoke of entrepreneurship as something bigger, something to consider for a nation in economic malaise.  “The cure for what ails us is the Entrepreneurial Spirit of this country.  We are a nation of people who encourage, support, and invest in those of any and all age, race and gender who will use their ingenuity and come up with, a new idea.  It’s always the new idea that re-energizes this country……  Now is the time for Entrepreneurs to step up and do our part for our country. It’s up to us to start businesses and create jobs. That is the cure to this country’s economic problems.”

PEP is stepping up.

We are citizens united for a better future.  This pin given out at the March on Washington 50 years ago represents the dream of equality and prosperity for all.  Through dedication, through unity, through entrepreneurship, we are honoring Dr. King’s dream for a better future for all citizens.

Lance Manning with Participants in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program

Lance Manning with Participants in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program

Thank you to our volunteer Amanda for writing this great blog about her experience visiting PEP this past week:

Today I went to prison.

I have supported Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) for several years with small financial gifts and this year as an Executive Business Adviser. So, this year when planning my vacation to the U.S., I decided to make a stop in Houston. I wanted to see firsthand what they do and also participate in “Selling Night” where PEP participants gain valuable experience pitching and crafting their business plans.

Then, all of the sudden last night I began to think, “What the heck am I doing?” In Houston, going to a prison? And I was a little bit nervous.

The event today was amazing. I have rarely been so welcomed into a community of people eager to meet me and have what we refer to in the Dominican as anintercambio – the meeting of two or more people on level ground to learn from and serve each other.

The men in the PEP are near release and have undergone an intensive interview process to be able to participate in a challenging-MBA like program. I had read the literature, but still was not prepared for how well spoken, genuine, and eager to work hard they would be.

The biggest take away for me today was: we are all the same. As the men pitched to me they were nervous. As I got ready this morning I was nervous. They have made some mistakes and the good Lord knows just how many of those I have made too. I saw myself in them. I have been given many second chances and good gifts I did not deserve. I want to be a facilitator of those same things to them too.

Several Executive Volunteers stood up and addressed the men and told them they came to this event and to serve them because the men are worthy. So true.