Posts Tagged ‘prison reform’

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

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“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.”

PEP was recently filmed by the Charles Koch Institute, and the video was shown at its Advancing Justice Conference this month in New Orleans! Check it out to hear PEP staff members, graduates and participants explain how our organization is making a dent in a system that wants to forever keep felons under its thumb.

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.
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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.

KERA

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.
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Houstonforwardtimes

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 http://www.PEP.org 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.
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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.”

The following was written by PEP Class 16 Graduate, Jason M.
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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 Cited in The Economist!

Posted: June 23, 2015 by Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) in About PEP
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“America’s bloated prison system has stopped growing. Now it must shrink,” is what this publication proclaims. Read the full story here.

the economist

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DAVID PEACE, a 35-year-old from Dallas, has never used the internet. Neither has he ever used a mobile phone, possessed a driving licence or received a pay-cheque. Mr Peace, who is black, stockily built, with a broad smile, was convicted of an aggravated assault in 1997 after using a knife in a fight with a neighbour. The years most men of his age would have spent working, or starting a family, he has spent in various prisons in Texas. Next year he will be released from the minimum-security prison in Cleveland, a town near Houston, where he is currently held. The prospect of the outside world is still daunting. “I feel left behind,” he says. “I’ve been living in a place where all of my choices are made for me, and now I have to learn to make the right choices.”
No country in the world imprisons as many people as America does, or for so long. Across the array of state and federal prisons, local jails and immigration detention centres, some 2.3m people are locked up at any one time. America, with less than 5% of the world’s population, accounts for around 25% of the world’s prisoners. The system is particularly punishing towards black people and Hispanics, who are imprisoned at six times and twice the rates of whites respectively. A third of young black men can expect to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. The system is riddled with drugs, abuse and violence. Its cost to the American taxpayer is about $34,000 per inmate per year; the total bill is around $80 billion.

Things were not always this way. In 1970 America’s state and federal prisons together held just under 200,000 inmates. In 2013, the latest year for which figures are available, the number of people in federal prisons, which hold only people convicted of federal crimes such as drug-smuggling or fraud, was itself more than 200,000 (see chart). There were almost 1.4m more inmates in state prisons; and there were over 700,000 people locked up in jails, some of them serving short sentences, the majority of them awaiting trial. Most of the inmates were men, but at 113 per 100,000 the incarceration rate of black women is higher than the overall incarceration rate in France or Germany. Prison conditions are often poor; many of those locked up have no proper access to training, education or rehabilitation.

Unstoppable though the system’s growth has seemed at times, in the past five years it has reached a plateau. In 2009, for the first time since the 1970s, the total prison population declined slightly. One reason is that, faced with budget pressures, many states—particularly big ones such as California, New York and Texas—have been trying to cut their prison populations. Reforms to sentencing policy introduced by Eric Holder, Barack Obama’s attorney-general from 2009 to 2015, may explain the very small recent fall in federal prison numbers.
Another reason for the plateau in prison numbers is that crime is on the retreat—and with it people’s fears of crime. According to polling by Gallup, the proportion of Americans who worry “a great deal” about crime and violence has fallen dramatically since 2001 (though this year it ticked up from its previous low). That makes reform easier. American electorates have been widely assumed always to favour measures that look tough and punitive; but in California voters passed a ballot initiative last November that was designed to keep some non-violent criminals out of prison.

The trend could continue. Indeed, it could and should accelerate; this problem needs fixing. But even with a political appetite for reform and a public mood conducive to it, a comprehensive cutting back will be hard. The expanded prison system has built itself into the fabric of society. Judges, district attorneys, state- and county-level politicians, police forces, prison-guard unions, federal agencies and private firms that build and run prisons: all have contributed to the rise of mass incarceration, and many benefit from it. In rural parts of America prisons are now the biggest employers in many towns.

Forcing people in

The extraordinary growth in the prison population started with the “war on drugs” begun by Richard Nixon. The first state laws to bring in mandatory sentencing for drug crimes were introduced in New York in 1973, under Governor Nelson Rockefeller. During Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s both the federal government and many states introduced much tougher penalties for dealing crack cocaine than for dealing powder cocaine, a move that enforced strong racial biases on sentencing. Between 1980 and 1990, the proportion of offenders in prison whose primary offence was to do with drugs climbed from under 8% to almost a quarter.

The crack-cocaine epidemic produced the conditions for more punitive policies across the board. “Three strikes” provisions, which required prison for third offences however minor, and “truth-in-sentencing” laws, which limited the possibility of parole to at most the last 15% of a sentence, proliferated. In many cases their passage was sponsored by prison-guard unions. Time served grew dramatically: according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the average prisoner released in 2009 spent three years inside, up from two in 1990.
In the early 1990s crime began to fall; by 2000 it was falling steeply. At the time some put this down to the growth in the prison population, but today few experts see that as having been much of a factor. In the 1970s and 1980s more incarceration probably did take some violent and dangerous people off the streets. But a comprehensive study by the Brennan Centre for Justice at New York University Law School, published in February, found that at most 12% of the fall in property crime in the 1990s could be attributed to more people in prison—and that there might have been no effect at all. Some of the punitive policies adopted in the 1990s seem to have been of particularly little value: Robert Nash Parker, a criminologist at the University of California, Riverside, has found that crime fell just as fast in states that had not adopted three-strikes laws as in ones that had.

A bigger prison system was also a worse one; as prisons filled up, states cut back on their quality. In 2012 a report on Arizona prisons by Amnesty International found thousands of prisoners confined to windowless cells for 22 to 24 hours a day, without access to education or indeed any sensory stimulation at all. Most Texan prisons are not air-conditioned, which means that in summer the heat index, which takes temperature and humidity into account, can rise as high as 140°F (60°C). In one shocking case at a women’s prison in Alabama, guards were found to be routinely raping the inmates—and punishing those who complained with solitary confinement or threats of violence.
The drug problems that often get people to prison are rarely treated there: in 2010 the National Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse, a think-tank, found that 65% of prisoners and jail inmates had substance-abuse problems, for which just 11% got any help. In many states prisoners have extremely limited access to vocational training or higher education. The crime bill signed by Bill Clinton in 1994, a measure which enacted subsidies that encouraged the building of state prisons, also banned prisoners from receiving Pell grants to help get college degrees—a decision which dramatically undercut education within prisons. As Mr Clinton admitted in an interviewon CNN in May, “We wound up…putting so many people in prison that there wasn’t enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out so they could live productive lives.”
Mr Peace, about to be released from his prison near Houston, is one of those who enjoys such a chance, thanks to philanthropy. He is enrolled in a privately organised “Prison Entrepreneurship Programme” through which he receives enthusiastic mentoring from well-off volunteers (dancing features surprisingly heavily: tattooed murderers bop around the floor with blazer-wearing oil executives from Houston). When he leaves prison, he will get help finding housing and work. When most prisoners in Texas are released at the end of their term, though, they get just a bus ticket home and $100; those let out on parole get $50. It is a recipe for recidivism. According to a Department of Justice survey of those released from state prisons in 30 states, 77% of those released in 2005 were arrested within five years; more than half of the arrests were within a year of release.

Building a new life is made even more difficult by policies which continue to punish criminals long after they have served their time. In many states, former felons are banned from claiming food stamps and getting public housing. In some trades, having a conviction can keep you out of work entirely. In Texas prisoners may be taught how to cut hair in prison, but barbers’ licences are withheld from some convicted felons.

Making a plateau a peak

The case for change is manifest; the opportunity real. Outrage at the deaths of black Americans at the hands of the police has prompted a new look at the way the rest of the justice system treats them. Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee for president, gave a speech in April arguing that “there is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are still far more likely to be…sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts.” Some sort of reform is popular with a number of Republicans, too. In the Senate several Republicans are joint sponsors of bipartisan bills intended to reform the federal prison system.
The war on drugs is now being wound down. In four states and the District of Columbia cannabis has been legalised; in many more, its possession has been decriminalised. New York reformed the Rockefeller drug laws in 2004 and again in 2009. In 2010 Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the historic 100:1 disparity between the amount of powder cocaine and the amount of crack that would trigger federal penalties. Drugs courts have been widely introduced to direct non-violent drug-users into treatment, not prison.
John Whitmire, a Democrat in the Texas state Senatewho is a prominent advocate of prison reform, says his state is at last learning “to distinguish between who you’re afraid of and who you’re mad at.” The state’s Right on Crime movement—a Republican group—argues that reducing prison populations is both fiscally conservative and in accord with the Christian principle of forgiveness. Rick Perry, until January Texas’s governor and a Republican presidential candidate for 2016, likes to boast about closing three prisons during his time in office.
But substantially reducing the prison population is difficult. Reducing the flow into prison of non-violent, non-sex-offender prisoners who have committed relatively minor crimes—which is much of what has been done so far—is politically palatable, but has only a limited impact. John Pfaff of Fordham Law School in New York points out that such offenders have been a diminishing proportion of the prison population for some time. Violent offenders make up around half of all prisoners in state and federal prisons, sex offenders 12%. There are 165,000 murderers in America’s state prisons and 160,000 rapists: if everyone else were released, America’s incarceration rate would still be higher than Germany’s. Over time this pattern seems certain to strengthen: even for dealers, drug sentences tend to be relatively short, but violent criminals are sent away for decades. There is little appetite for releasing them early, even if they have aged and mellowed in prison.

Another problem is that the people who run the system have substantial incentives to protect it. “If it wasn’t for district attorneys, we would have passed so many more bills already,” says Ana Yáñez-Correa, the head of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a prison-reform pressure group. The backlash to be faced if a criminal who could have been, or stayed, locked up does something heinous gives elected prosecutors—and judges—a strong incentive to err on the side of stiff penalties. Mr Pfaff sees a ratchet effect at work over time, with prosecutors seeking ever tougher charges. Private prisons, which account for just 8% of all prison beds but are growing fast, also produce a constituency with an interest in seeing those beds filled. Many prison-management firms insist on minimum-occupancy terms in contracts.

For these reasons and others, attempts made by states to slow or arrest the growth of their prison populations have met with only partial success. Texas’s prison population, for example, has not fallen much since 2007. In half the states the prison population continued to increase between 2009 and 2013, even as the national numbers fell a bit.
But two big states, California and New York, have done well enough to suggest that the others could do better. In California the imprisoned population has been cut by 51,000, over 30%, since 2006. New York’s prison population has been falling since 1999, and is now a quarter smaller than it was. In both states, the reforms that have worked have not been changes to laws but rather adjustments to the way in which the entire system, from arrest to release, is organised.

In California, the reduction was largely the result of “realignment”, a policy adopted after the US Supreme Court ruled that the state’s prisons were dangerously overcrowded and either new prisons would have to be built or prisoners released. The response was to pass the cost of dealing with comparatively harmless criminals from the state to its counties—the entities which actually charge people and send them to prison. In addition, county probation departments took on responsibility for 60,000 people released from prison into supervision programmes.

Focusing on the worst

The policy seems to have realigned incentives productively; though roughly a third of the reduction in California’s prison population went back behind bars, two-thirds did not. The state is now going further: proposition 47, an initiative passed last year with overwhelming support, is likely further to reduce the number of people going to prison by replacing several felonies with misdemeanours.
New York’s adjustment to the system has been brought about largely by prosecutors in New York City, who have become more careful about how they use the toughest charges. Cy Vance, Manhattan’s district attorney, is a fan of what he calls intelligence-driven prosecution. Under his tutelage, a Crime Strategies Unit collects information on the most persistent criminals, which can inform prosecutors even if it does not form part of a case. “If I know someone who is involved in shootings or violence, even if he is arrested for shoplifting, I want to charge it as aggressively as possible,” says Mr Vance.

The rationale behind this strategy is that most people who turn up in front of a judge are fairly harmless; even in the most violent neighbourhoods, a tiny number of criminals, often ones good at intimidating witnesses, account for most violent crime. If the book is thrown at the second lot and more leniency show to the first, prison populations and crime rates could both fall. The intelligence lies in throwing the books correctly.

And some money that could have been spent on prosecutions is instead being spent on crime prevention. At a gym in a relatively poor neighbourhood of Harlem teenagers are taught basketball skills by professional coaches—all under the watchful eyes of police officers and staff from Mr Vance’s office. Similar sessions take place every weekend at ten different sites across Manhattan. In a city where zero-tolerance policing makes many young black teenagers suspicious of any uniform, the teenagers seem happy with the prosecutors and cops present. The hope is that by building trust, prosecutors will find out about arguments between teenage gangs before they erupt into violence.
If prison is to be less of a part of American life, the philosophy behind such schemes needs to spread. Reform in police forces like those of Los Angeles and New York City, which in the 1990s started trying to prevent crime as well as react to it, is one of the things that has made America less violent. But the rest of the criminal-justice system is only slowly catching up to the idea of being proactive. A system that has been designed to react to crime, and to punish it, needs to prevent it instead. That will take a broad change in culture, not just tweaks to laws.

In his cell block, Mr Peace complains that for most of the time he has spent in prison, he has never been treated as someone with a problem, but rather as a problem himself. He has earned qualifications as a plumber and a welder—both paid for by his mother. He is hopeful that when he leaves, he will never come back. If America is to be the land of the free, it will have to learn to forgive a lot more men like him.

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.

Actonlogo

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.
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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 was just profiled in Tech.Co. The story, linked here, is below.


TechCoIn the classic novel Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, ex-convict Jean Valjean underwent a complete transformation after receiving unmerited forgiveness from the bishop he was trying to rob.  Valjean later became a dignified businessman and pillar of the community, advocating for the poor and powerless.  This picture of redemption is what thousands of inmates long to experience as they apply for admission to the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP).

As a nonprofit, PEP seeks to “unlock human potential through entrepreneurial passion, education, and mentoring.”  Founded by business leaders who recognized the entrepreneurial spirit of Texas inmates, the organization has successfully produced over a thousand graduates since the program began in 2004.  PEP offers a rigorous curriculum with MBA-level coursework that challenges inmates and enables them to productively return to society after prison.

The PEP leadership conceived of the idea for the entrepreneurship program upon studying the profiles of criminals in the Texas prison system.  Prior to their arrest and conviction, many of the inmates were competently running their own burgeoning enterprises.  And although the businesses they owned may have been illegal, their ability to start and grow their companies demonstrated the presence of unrealized business acumen in the prison system.  PEP hopes the entrepreneurship program will repurpose the inmates’ entrepreneurial talents and channel them into legitimate business ventures.

Lending credibility to the program is Baylor University, which has been awarding PEP graduates with a Certificate of Entrepreneurship since 2013.  The certificate provides an incentive for inmates to excel and also helps to overcome the stigma of incarceration.  According to PEP, less than one percent of those enrolled in the program are white-collar criminals.  Most have drug-related offenses, with 50 percent doing time for violent crimes.

Just how effective is the Prison Entrepreneurship Program?  Baylor University announced that the employment rate of PEP graduates is over 93% and the recidivism rate is under 5%.  PEP estimates the program has saved the state of Texas $6 million in reduced recidivism.  Graduates have launched over 165 businesses, with at least two exceeding $1 million in gross revenues.

To learn more about the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, visit PEP’s website atpep.org.