Texas program fosters inmate entrepreneurs

We at Jails to Jobs love to hear about other programs that are helping those incarcerated find gainful employment upon release, and we heard about one recently that may be unrivaled.

Based at Cleveland State Prison in Cleveland, Texas, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program acts on the belief that exceptional talent exists behind bars, and that many inmates were actually successful entrepreneurs. The only problem is they ran illegal businesses.

It all began in 2004 when former Wall Street executive and UC Berkeley Haas School of Business alumnus Catherine Rohr toured a prison. Impressed by the passion and business acumen she found among inmates, Rohr left her investment career to create the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.

PEP operates at the Cleveland Correctional Facility, a 520-bed pre-release facility in Cleveland, Texas.  The organization works with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to identify potential male participants from correctional facilities throughout the state. Only 15 to 30 percent of those who apply are accepted. Those chosen are relocated to Cleveland.

Whether in for murder, robbery or drug dealing – only sexual crimes disqualify one from participating – applicants must have a GED or high school diploma, be within three years of release, have no current gang affiliation, and, perhaps most importantly, be committed to change.

During the five-month prison program, participants study a curriculum combining that of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship and the Kauffman Foundation’s FastTrac. At the same time, each inmate creates a business plan with the help of his own business plan advisor. Business executives and MBA students from around the nation attend events at the prison, where they listen to pitches and offer one-on-one advice on business plans in progress. The whole program culminates with a business plan competition, similar to the type that business schools put on. The participants give 30-minute presentations, judged by a panel of executives. The competition is followed by a formal graduation ceremony.

But the program doesn’t end there. PEP provides an array of post-release  support services, which begin upon release from prison. Because studies show that inmates are most vulnerable following the first 72 hours of release, PEP case managers escort participants to their new homes or halfway houses. PEP provides transportation to appointments and job interviews, resume advice and career counseling, and clothing for interviews, as well as job referrals, including to members of the organization’s executive network.

Parolees can participate in the organization’s eSchool – Entrepreneurship School – at University of Houston-Downtown and the University of Dallas. After four weeks, eSchool students are paired with an executive, who serves as their mentor.

Upon completing 16 classes they graduate from the program and are eligible for small business financing from the organization’s network of angel investors.

PEP graduates also have access to consultants through PEP’s network who can help them with various aspects of their business and who may on occasion offer them contracts.

From start to finish PEP is a unique program, and its statistics are impressive. PEP has graduated more than 600 participants, who have launched more than 75 businesses. About 90 percent find employment within 90 days of release, and the program has engaged more than 570 MBA volunteers from 40 programs.

For more information, visit www.prisonentrepreneurship.org.

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  1. Could you please send me information on a training curriculum so that I can incorporate it in federal prison with the inmates I work with? Thank you. Thinking outside the box, good for you!

    • Cindy — We don’t have a training curriculum for entrepreneurship, but we do have a book about job searching geared toward ex-offenders coming out in the fall, and it includes information about how to become an entrepreneur. Please send us your contact info, and we’ll let you know when it’s published. There’s also an MBA student in Atlanta who has launched The Pentorship Project, an interesting program matching entrepreneurs with inmates which we wrote about in our June 8 blog.

      Good luck putting together a program. — Judy

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