Overview of PEP: the Prison Entrepreneurial Program

By Christopher Zoukis

A Houston-based non-profit, the PEP organization and its re-entry programs for male inmates released from prison are an innovative approach to reducing recidivism and helping men turn their lives around for good.  Founded in 2004, PEP effectively pairs newly released prisoners with executives, MBA students, and even politicians to form the basis of its entrepreneurial initiative.  Rather than focus on traditional prison education programs (i.e. liberal arts coursework), this program supports business and entrepreneurial pursuits. 

It’s All about Perspective

The people that created PEP or work within the program have a refreshing view of prisons.  They see them as a “storehouse of untapped potential.”  That perspective fuels the program’s success.  In fact, the PEP website goes so far as to suggest that many former prisoners they work with are already entrepreneurs; they just happened to be involved, oftentimes, with illegal businesses and practices.  Nevertheless, the organization seeks to capitalize on that seed of know-how or passion for business and to ultimately reshape it for legitimate entrepreneurial pursuits through mentoring and the development of both life skills and career skills.

Mission and Values of PEP  Image courtesy vimeo.com

The organization is committed to various tenets.  Its mission and vision can be found on its website; however, put simply, the group strives to provide people exiting prison with a fresh start.  Moreover, they embody the attitude that everyone deserves a second chance.  Professionals working as mentors in the program are also endowed with a commitment to service.  While they are leaders in their field, they also believe in the necessity to serve their communities.

That said, as new relationships are forged, all participants are encouraged to embrace qualities like integrity and accountability.  Working as an entrepreneur requires dedication and work.  The organization seeks to develop the tools that ex-prisoners need to rebuild their lives; participants are also expected to contribute a strong work ethic and a willingness to learn from others and embrace innovation and change. 

Program Fundamentals

PEP recruits its prisoners from more than sixty prisons.  In essence, PEP is able to “hand-pick” applicants who they believe would benefit most from their type of program.  Work ethic is extremely important to the group so they look for signs of that quality.  Applicants are still in prison when they fill out their applications.  The applications of pre-released men are then scrutinized.  Many participants in the program have been jailed for drug dealing; however, the group has even accepted violent felons whose behavior may simply have stemmed from a disadvantaged background. 

Once selected and upon their release, participants attend a five-month “boot-camp” where they attend business classes and meet with dozens of business executives.  Participants not only learn to pitch their business ideas, they learn the skills needed to make them a reality. However, the program goes deeper than just business concepts.  PEP staff also work to help the families of newly released prisoners understand the challenges of re-entry and encourage them to play a vital role in the process of life change.

Taking Care of Basics

Re-entry for any former inmate can be a difficult time; finding a place to live and work to support themselves or their families is a struggle.  The organization, therefore, has made it a priority to help these men locate the following: housing, access to job opportunities, professional attire, parole mediation, transportation, and other forms of assistance that are essential for helping people get on track so they can focus on working hard to make their entrepreneurial dreams goals a reality.

While helping participants fulfill their immediate needs upon release, they focus particularly on job searching.  They see it as the key factor that can reduce the immediate threat of recidivism.  Once participants have secured work and are on the path to changing their lives, they are less likely to succumb to old patterns out of desperation.  A job is vital to helping participants achieve lasting change. 

Measure of Success

The business of helping others change their lives is important if recidivism rates are to be combatted.  In Texas, the recidivism rate, according to PEP, is about 25%; however, for PEP participants, the rate is less than 5%.  While such statistics are one measure of success, there are others such as the life change and positive contributions to the community.  Pep also points out the financial contributions graduates make merely in the form of taxes once they are gainfully employed.  The success of these program participants is ultimately a success for communities.

Fulfilling a Need

When viewing various education programs available for inmates and the newly released, this program fulfills a unique niche by addressing the entrepreneurial field.  The program is an excellent fit for a segment of inmates who not only have innate business skills, but who want to effectively develop those skills and work in the entrepreneurial field.  The non-profit group relies on private investment to meet its goals.  They are also involved with professionals from area business schools and others in the community who assist with the program in various capacities.