Business School Behind Bars Part 3

Members of PEP Class 18 meet and mix with program volunteers in the PEP event room at the Cleveland Correctional Center. Image provided by PEP.
Nearly 900 inmates of the Cleveland Correctional Center have earned a fresh start through the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. But the program's biggest test may have come in reforming itself, as Andrew Schneider reports in the third of our four part series.

“This is our, this is what we give everybody that gets out. Give them a care package …”

PEP’s headquarters are tucked away in a Houston business park, 50 miles south of Cleveland. The space houses a business incubator and a classroom for continuing education. There’s also what amounts to a small warehouse. It’s stocked with everything from laundry detergent to notebooks for job interviews.

Al Massey says that when PEP graduates are released from prison, the program gives them about $300 worth of supplies to start their new lives.

“So they don’t have to spend that first $50. ’Cause the State of Texas gives you $50 and a one-way bus ticket back to where you’re from. That’s just showing you it’s going to fail.”

If anyone can appreciate the value of what the Prison Entrepreneurship Program offers, it’s Al Massey. He’s not just the program’s executive relations manager. Like much of PEP’s staff, he's also a graduate.

“I went through and graduated Class 9, and when I got out, I became a peer educator, because I still had time on my sentence.”

When Massey went through the course, PEP was still run by Catherine Rohr. A Wall Street venture capitalist, Rohr founded PEP while still in her twenties, after volunteering with Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship ministry. 

Bert Smith was one of PEP’s first volunteers.

“She was very dynamic, very energetic, a very aggressive and effective fundraiser, and there was a view that her direct, personal involvement was essential to the future of PEP.”

That view got a harsh test in 2009, when it was discovered that Rohr had affairs with a number of PEP graduates, some of whom were still on parole. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice permanently banned her from its facilities.

“It was quite a blow. I felt like I’d been sucker punched.”

PEP’s board feared that, without Rohr’s involvement, the program would not survive. Job one was to reassure volunteers, donors, and the TDCJ, that the program’s focus and values hadn’t changed.

“Within a period of less than a year, we had reestablished the confidence that TCDJ had in us enough, so that we were given approval to fully occupy the Cleveland Correctional Center.”

By 2011, both contributions and volunteer participation reached an all-time high. Bert Smith, who played a major role in the program’s turnaround, is now CEO.



Tomorrow at this same time …

[Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance]

PEP’s Class 18 celebrates Graduation Day, in the conclusion of “Business School Behind Bars.” From the KUHF Business Desk, I’m Andrew Schneider.

Bio photo of Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Business Reporter

Andrew Schneider joined KUHF in January 2011, after more than a decade as a print reporter for The Kiplinger Letter...