Posts Tagged ‘Prison Entrepreneurship Program’

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We don’t do handouts,” McGee said.

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

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

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

Last week PEP CEO, Bert Smith, attended the annual Philanthropy Roundtable in Las Colinas, TX. Read on to learn why PEP is considered one of the “stars of Texas” in the nonprofit realm. To read the full story and listen to the audio, click here.

Donating to charity is big business. Last year, $358 billion was given out and 80 percent of that came from individuals. The Philanthropy Roundtable is a national nonprofit that helps donors give wisely.

That group’s in Las Colinas for its annual meeting. And some standout North Texas groups were invited too.


Nonprofits are built on passion and ideals. They can only survive with support.

For example, CEO Heather Reynolds says it takes an annual budget of $28 million to run Catholic Charities Fort Worth.

“That pays for 400 staff and all costs associated with that as well as direct assistance for clients, and that allows us to serve about 100,000 clients each year,” she says.

By doing things like paying for utility bills, credit counseling, hosting dental clinics and job training.

“We’re a business at Catholic Charities Fort Worth, we just happen to be in the business of helping people,” Reynolds says.

Another North Texas nonprofit, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, helps inmates develop an original business plan. During the first year felons get out of prison, their unemployment rate hovers close to 60 percent.

“Every one of our graduates for five years running has found his first job or started a business within 90 days of release, every one of them,” says Bert Smith, who heads up the program.

Smith and Heather Reynolds were both invited to speak at the Philanthropy Roundtable’s annual meeting — their organizations were highlighted as “stars of Texas.”

Connecting big donors with well-run nonprofits is the whole point of this meeting. Jo Kwong, the Roundtable’s director of economic opportunity, says handing out money isn’t as easy as it sounds.

“When you have money to give away everyone’s your best friend,” she says. “So you can just respond to everybody who comes to your door or you could think about what’s the problem you want to solve?”

Only donors who give $100,000 or more a year are allowed to attend this meeting — groups like the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation from Kansas City and the Connelly Foundation from Philadelphia.

Despite the presence of half a dozen Texas nonprofits, it’s not a sales pitch. It’s about learning how to invest wisely and also sidestepping organizations that might not be above board.

“Sometimes the ones that spend a lot of money putting commercials on TV and are household names are the ones who spend all their money putting ads on TV,” Kwong says. “And then you have to dig down: What are they actually doing?”

Hopefully, good work across their community. Bert Smith says the Prison Entrepreneurship Program’s record speaks for itself.

“There are more than 200 businesses now that have been started by graduates of the program and six of them are at a scale where they will generate more than a million dollars in revenue this year,” he says.

A number even the big donor crowd can respect.

Check out our most recent write-up in the Houston Forward Times! Read the full story here.


Who really believes in giving second chances to someone who is already considered a failure?

Many people wonder about today’s society. Most do not think someone in an unfortunate circumstance could make the most of a chance they are given. Is opportunity only for the more fortunate citizens of the United States of America or can anyone rebound after getting knocked down?

Not many people can honestly say they believe in that today. However, this is not the case for the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP).

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) is a Houston-based 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization that was established in 2004. At PEP, they are servant leaders on a mission to transform inmates to executives by unlocking human potential through entrepreneurial passion, education and mentoring. Their groundbreaking results include a return-to-prison rate of less than 7%, an employment rate of 100% within 90 days of release and over 185 businesses launched by graduates of the program. They have pioneered innovative programs that connect the nation’s top executives, entrepreneurs and MBA students with convicted felons.

PEP’s team knows from experience that prison is a storehouse of untapped potential. Many inmates come to prison as seasoned entrepreneurs who happened to run illegitimate businesses. Once equipped with education and life skills training, the ROI potential for the truly reformed prisoner, his family and his community is limitless.

Charles Hearne is the Houston Executive Relations Manager for PEP, and believes the program continues to make a great impact in our communities.

“Our entrepreneurship boot camp and re-entry programs, which include spiritual and character development courses, are proven for maximizing self-sufficiency and transforming broken lives,” said Hearne.

Former Wall Street professional Catherine Rohr founded PEP in May of 2004 after she toured a prison and noticed that executives and inmates had more in common than most would think. They know how to manage others to get things done.

Rohr wondered what would happen if inmates who were committed to their own transformation were equipped to start and run legitimate companies. Following an unusual calling, Rohr left behind her New York career and financial stability, moved to Texas started a one-of-a-kind “behind bars” business plan competition. Her efforts were geared toward channeling the entrepreneurial passions and influential personalities of the inmates—intentionally recruiting former gang leaders, drug dealers and hustlers.

She quickly realized the entrepreneurial ability of the men inside of those prisons and wanted a way to show how successful those men could be on the other side if they were cultivated correctly.

Even the most unsophisticated drug dealers inherently understand business concepts such as competition, profitability, risk management and proprietary sales channels. For both executives and inmates, passion is instinctive.

The overwhelming response of 55 inmates and 15 world-class executives to judge the business plans and presentations was the catalyst to launch the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.

While Rohr resigned in 2009, the organization has continued to grow and prosper. PEP now graduates more men than ever before, and the results are better than ever and remain the best in the prison rehabilitation field.

PEP has been picking up steam and has come a long way since 2004. Although based in Cleveland, TX, PEP is associated with prisons in other states that have embraced this revolutionary idea.

“The goal is to affect the tipping point in Texas prisons,” said Hearne. “About 43,000 men are released throughout the year in Texas prisons. We want to be in a situation where we are affecting about 10 percent of those men. So essentially we want to affect about 4,300 men a year.”

PEP has only two units and roughly graduates 300 men per year. Although they have not fully met their target goal, they are getting closer.

Many of the men who go through PEP have amazing ideas. Some have wanted to open meat markets, while others have wanted to open pool companies.

“Some of the men have actually owned businesses before and already have legitimate business knowledge,” said Hearne. “Those men would take their own business plan, revamp it and use that information and knowledge to build a business they already had information on.”

PEP has established more than 200 different businesses, and of those 200, at least 6 of them will be performing at the million dollar revenue range by the end of the year.

A true testimony on how PEP has helped different individuals get up after being knocked down in life is Hearne, who not only serves as the Executive Relations Manager, but is also a former participant in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.” said Hearne. “I’ve been out of the program for a little more than two years and I’d already made up my mind after I got incarcerated that the things I was doing wasn’t working for me. So it was time to have a change of heart, a change of surroundings and do things differently. Being a part of PEP set me on a trajectory faster than what I could have accomplished on my own. In the 2 ½ years I have been out, I have completed about 5 semesters of college and will be graduating next spring. I have given back to the community in different ways, such as community engagement and volunteer services. I have become a true contributor to society by way of Prison Entrepreneurship Program.”

PEP is an outstanding program that has directly and indirectly helped thousands of lives every year since it was established.

If you are looking for more information, or if you know someone who could use helpful information about this program, please visit to learn more about the program.

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program has proven that everyone deserves a second chance, and more importantly, you should never judge a book by its cover.

Houston timber company, Building Products Plus, has had great success hiring PEP graduates. Read the full PR Underground article here.

PR underground

Building Products Plus, a Houston-based company that manufactures and supplies extended life structural building materials, has found success in hiring employees through the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, (PEP). Having hired seven program graduates within the last year, the company’s President, Dorian Benn, is “more than pleased” with the results of these employees. Of the seven BPP hired during the last year, five have stayed and made a real difference both in their own lives and as employees.

The PEP Program

The PEP program operates in 60+ prisons in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, with all operations based out of the Cleveland Correctional Center. In 2013 Baylor University researchers conducted a study of PEP’s results vs other similar programs in Texas. PEP outperformed the other nine rehabilitation programs’ recidivism rates by 70%.

While program members must complete and present a business plan, including a multi-year financial plan, in order to graduate, they do not have to start the business once released. They are encouraged to find employment using the skills and knowledge obtained while in the program, and that might not always be by starting their own business.

Bert Smith, CEO of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program is proud to report that since the program began 11 years ago, 185 graduates of the 1100 total have started businesses. Of those 185, four of those business are forecasted to gross $1 million, each, this year alone, as well as creating 25 jobs, combined. “Don’t judge the man by the label. Never assume he’s not capable of living a different life.” Smith says.

An “Attitude of Gratitude”

Building Products Plus is certainly an advocate for this program. They have an “attitude of gratitude” says Benn, “I don’t look at them any differently. They needed a job, we had an opening. They are grateful and eager to succeed. It’s a better life.”

One such program graduate, Rocky Arnold, was hired as a Mill Coordinator over a year ago. Since then he has been promoted to Mill Supervisor, and then to Operations Manager. He often returns to the program he is immensely thankful for and mentors those still going through the program. BPP has hired all ranges of program graduates from truck drivers to salesmen. Their training and experiences from previous jobs and education combined with life skills and spiritual connections made in the PEP are key ingredients for their success.

Smith states that there aren’t any official partnerships with specific businesses, “just good relationships forged by the graduates themselves,” which appears to work well. Based on the success of the employees at Building Products Plus, Benn intends to remain an active business partner of the PEP, and adds “The program shows them that they can have a better life. They can succeed honestly and with hard work their reintegration isn’t nearly as scary or unsure. They have a solid base and support. We’re happy we found them.”

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 PEP Class 16 Graduate, Jason M.

God is a master craftsman, and He has a large tool box! Inside this tool box are tools that He uses to shape, mold, and make a man into what He destined and determined him to be in eternity past.

Jason Moore

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) was one of the many tools that God used to shape me into the man I am today. I find it divinely strategic that God waited until just the right time before introducing me to PEP. I was 37 years old and had over 12 years done on a 15-year sentence for murder when my life intersected with PEP.

My life in prison up to this point had been pretty stable and structured. God was using me to teach and preach His Word. I was a pastor and mentor to many behind bars, and in their eyes and in my own, naively, I was ready for reentry. So we thought…

However, after my very first day of involvement with PEP, I quickly discovered that there were things God wanted to pull out of me and put into me, that before my release and reentry, God would work what He both needed and wanted to do in me and through me.

And he used PEP to do exactly that!

PEP was the tool God used to challenge me and make me uncomfortable in new ways. It was the tool that helped prepare me for the curveballs and the blows below the belt that this world often throws.

Since my release and reentry, PEP is still playing a similar role in my life. I am actually now working for the very program that God used to work on me. It’s still a tool in God’s hand, and He is still using it to make me into the man He created and called me to be. I’m now also a husband, father, and strong pillar in the city, community, and church. I’m almost tempted to say I’m a success, but I’m wise enough to know that when the trumpet blows, and the roll is called up yonder, God and only God will determine who is successful and unsuccessful!

Until then, I’m determined to live life “between the wings” for God’s glory and the furtherance of God’s story.

In His Service,
Jason M.
Class 16 Graduate & PEP Transition Coordinator

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.”

Those released from prison face an uphill battle, especially in the employment arena. Read on to learn more about a proposed bill that aims to level the playing field for felons in the hiring process. The story, published by the Houston Chronicle, can be found here.


The “box” asking about a criminal conviction is one most of us mindlessly check on employment applications. But for many otherwise employable adults, it’s the biggest barrier to moving forward with productive lives.

Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, introduced a bill this legislative session that would prevent state agencies from asking about an applicant’s criminal background until the interview stage. The proposal is in line with a national trend that has strong bipartisan support.

Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, recently teamed up with the conservative Koch Brothers to form an advocacy group for criminal justice reform. One of the coalition’s goals is to lessen the barriers to employment for ex-offenders. The Koch brothers have banned the box at Koch Industries, the multinational conglomerate.

Policies promoting rehabilitation for ex-offenders require a strong dose of common sense. No one is proposing, for instance, that a former drug dealer be allowed to work for the Texas Pharmacy Board. Or, for that matter, that any state agency be required to hire any ex-offender. A “ban-the-box” law just gives the potential employee an opportunity to present himself to a potential employer and for the potential employer to see the whole person. When that box is checked, applicants often are immediately rejected for a prior offense that may have no bearing on the job or is so old that it’s not relevant.

Johnson’s bill would apply only to state agencies. Regardless of whether the proposal becomes law, our entire community should embrace the challenge of ex-offender rehabilitation. Offenders who are released from prison and can’t find work are more likely to reoffend, thus ensuring that taxpayers will shoulder the burden of supporting them.

The numbers are staggering. According to U.S. Department of Labor estimates, one in three American adults has a criminal record. On any given day across the country, about 2.3 million people are incarcerated and each year 700,000 people are released from prison and almost 13 million are admitted to – and released from – local jails.

Last year, more than 70,000 ex-offenders were released from prisons, state jails and other state facilities in Texas alone. Let’s bring common sense to bear on this number. Our society can’t afford to continue to lock out nonviolent ex-offenders after they are released from jail. Those who are qualified and can do honest work should be able to do so.

PEP is 100% privately funded.  We rely on the generosity of hundreds of individual donors, grant-making foundations, and corporate sponsors to deliver our life-changing mission. And thanks to a recent study from Baylor University, we know that every dollar that these donors give to PEP generates at least a $3.40 return on investment to our community.

PEP is now embarking on an ambitious new plan to dramatically expand our impact. As we announced here, PEP recently launched our in-prison operations within a second prison in Texas. Our goal is to continue to scale our work in our home state until we can reach at least 10% of all of the inmates released from Texas prisons each year.

Today, we are proud to announce that the Scurlock Foundation has awarded PEP a remarkable FIVE-YEAR grant to support this expansion!

As Billy Wareing, a board member for the Scurlock Foundation, states:

“The Scurlock Foundation is honored to partner with PEP in their transformative work to end the cycle of recidivism in Texas prisons and bring hope to inmates who have lost heart.  The work that PEP does is redemptive in nature and we believe that God is working through PEP to restore families, bring hope through employment opportunities and ultimately restore all things through His son, Jesus.”

Please join us in thanking the Scurlock Foundation for their tremendous investment in our future!

To support PEP when you shop at Amazon, click here.

To support PEP when you shop at Amazon, click here.

Great news!

When you shop at Amazon Smile, Amazon will make a donation to the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. Just click here to register, and when you login to Amazon your account will connect to PEP!

It is:

  1. Free!
  2. Easy!