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 afterhours 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.”
Ray Nothstine is a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary and lives in Jackson, Mississippi.