A Texas non-profit is taking a different approach to rehabilitation. The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) aims to reduce convict recidivism by teaching prison inmates the entrepreneurial skills they need to be self-sustaining on the outside. Started in 2004, the PEP trains soon to be released inmates marketable business skills, encouraging them to think about the training in the context of starting their own businesses. The program has quickly become highly respected, with individuals and private foundations contributing more than $2 million each year to the PEP’s mission and Baylor University becoming a partner in 2013.
Inmates attend classes for six months with a diverse curriculum, starting out with character development and computer skills. Next, they complete courses in market research, finance and professional etiquette. In 2013, the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University partnered with PEP to provide each graduate with a certificate of entrepreneurship, adding credibility and extra incentive for the inmates to work hard. According to Marc Levin, criminal justice researcher at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, “Studies have shown that vocational education reduces recidivism more than anything else you can do.” The educational opportunity gives the inmates practical skills, a sense of self-worth and a drive to improve their lives.
Each year more than 5,000 inmates apply for the program. However, only 120 are chosen. The program targets inmates who are close to being released. PEP Chief Executive Bert Smith says the two most important questions for applicants are, “Is the man genuinely committed to change?” and “Do we believe based on everything he’s done before, he’s got a strong work ethic?” Inmates from any prison in Texas can apply. If selected, they are transferred to the Cleveland Correctional Center. The program also has two transitional houses in Dallas and Houston that many released graduates are allowed to live in for two to three months after their release from prison.
Benefits are two-fold. Inmates learn valuable business skills and cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit. Business plans range from indoor paintball centers to healthy vending machines to a custom baby blanket website. The state benefits too. Program officials estimate PEP saves Texas more than $6 million annually by keeping former inmates out of the prison system. It appears that programs like PEP are making a real difference in the lives of many current and former Texas inmates.