By Christopher Zoukis
The Prison Entrepreneurship Project has helped transform more than 1,300 convicted felons into business graduates that have transitioned successfully back into society.
The project focuses on male prisoners, and is a comprehensive, holistic program aimed at reducing recidivism, giving second chances to ex-offenders, and helping to ensure successful reintegration into their communities. Based at the Sanders Estes Unit in Venus, Texas, and the Cleveland Correctional Center in Cleveland, Texas, entrance to the program is highly competitive. From more than 10,000 eligible candidates and an average of 2000 applications — consisting of a 20-page form and three exams and interviews — about 500 men are accepted per year. The prisoners come from a multitude of backgrounds and have committed a wide variety of crimes, but all are eligible for release within three years.
The project is highly successful — more successful than the other nine major rehabilitation programs in Texas. One hundred percent of graduates will be employed within 90 days of release, almost 100 percent are still employed after one year, and the recidivism rate for PEP graduates after three years is less than seven percent — the national average for recidivism is 50 percent.
More than 200 small businesses have been launched by PEP graduates, several of which make more than $1 million per year. The Prison Entrepreneurship Project is clearly doing something right.
The program is an intensive one, combining a variety of classes and work with mentorship, and a competitive business plan competition. The goal is to spur innovation, realize potential and transform communities, using 10 driving values:
- Fresh start outlook
- Servant-leader mentality
- Wide stewardship
The program is results-oriented, preparing prisoners for successful re-entry and having addressed their own needs, building a business plan, and moving forward with defined goals. One aspect of the project includes a Family Liaisons program, which helps the men to rebuild family relationships.
On their successful completion of the program, graduates receive an entrepreneurship certificate from Baylor University Hankamer School of Business, and may also receive certificates in financial literacy and Toastmasters.
After release from prison, the participants in the program receive continuing support, with transitional housing, access to mentors and other PEP graduates, transportation, counseling, social events and emergency financial assistance. Through project partners, there is access to bus passes, dental and health care, and phone cards. Graduates can continue their learning and development in the business world through e-school, and upon completion of a certain number of workshops and courses, are eligible for small grants to assist in starting their businesses. The PEP also runs Communitas Business Centers in Houston and Dallas, which provides access to typical office resources, from internet and printers to accounting services and conference facilities, for a low monthly fee.
The Prison Entrepreneurship Project receives no government funding, and is largely reliant on donations and volunteers. It's partially self-funding, with a goal to be 30 percent self-funded by 2025. The program is so successful because of financial support and collaboration with a variety of community partners and organizations, including 10 University MBA/ entrepreneurship programs, 14 churches, 10 companies and corporations, and re-entry service programs including Crossroads Community Services, Kiva Zip fundraising loans, People Fund and Workforce Solutions. For individuals and organizations, there are many ways to participate in PEP — as a volunteer, donor, business plan advisor, mentor, teacher, or by hiring a PEP graduate.
The Prison Entrepreneurship Project is a glowing example of a successful program that addresses many issues ex-offenders face upon release, such as finding employment and housing. These are key factors affecting whether someone will successfully reintegrate, and whether or not they will return to prison. This model should be followed on a broader, national scale, with or without government funding, so that American can stop reinforcing the cycle of incarceration and move toward more comprehensive, effective and cost-efficient rehabilitative solutions.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com