It’s Graduation Day for PEP’s Class 18. Hundreds of folding chairs cover the floor of the gymnasium at the Cleveland Correctional Center. Parents, wives, and children have traveled here from all over the state -- and in some cases, from across the country.
Justin Libby is Class 18’s valedictorian.
“My parents flew down from Maine to see me here, so, hope I didn’t disappoint you. [Applause] We all did a lot of work, and we’ve all changed tremendously. And hopefully when we get out, you know, we can keep the growing going. So, thank you PEP.”
For many of the guests, this will be the first time they’ve seen their loved ones graduate. The highest distinction most of these men earned previously was a GED. In addition to their diplomas, these graduates will receive something none of the prior seventeen classes have. Jeremy Gregg is the program’s chief development officer.
“After evaluating our program, Baylor University Hankamer School of Business will now provide every single one of our graduates with a certificate in entrepreneurship from that university. It won’t say prison on it. It’s something these guys can use in the free world, and it represents the incredible work these guys have done.”
The men need every advantage they can get. For all the training they’ve received, they’ll need to earn a steady paycheck before they can hope to start businesses of their own. Few employers are willing to take a chance on hiring ex-convicts. It’s a big part of why nearly a quarter of the inmates released from Texas prisons wind up behind bars again within three years.
But PEP remains committed to its graduates for the long haul, as Chairman Mike Humphrey tells the audience.
“When they’re released, the vast majority wind up going to three transition homes that PEP operates. And within 90 days in PEP, 100% of our men are employed.”
Many begin by working for previous graduates. Of the nearly 900 men who have gone through the program, over 100 have started their own businesses.
Completing PEP won’t speed their release. Some of these graduates still have years to go on their sentences. They’ll remain at Cleveland, where they’ll serve as peer educators to future classes. Others have already finished their sentences, but returned to Cleveland by choice to graduate with their classmates. John Fay falls in the middle. The winner of Class 18’s business plan competition, Fay is up for parole next year.
“With hard work and determination, anything is possible. This has shown me that there’s so much more to life than just being here, and I can’t wait to get out and to really put everything into effect.”
[Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance]