My first time to prison

It was my first time in a prison. I had left my phone at the hotel and my driver’s license at the front desk.  (This left me feeling very helpless.)  We were walking down the hall, unsure of what it would be like.

And then I heard yelling… As we got closer, it got louder and there were flashing lights, and we realized that the yelling was cheering.  When we arrived at the door, the prisoners had formed a tunnel with their arms and we all ran through.  On the other side, they gave us big smiles and handshakes, welcoming us.  It was not what I expected.

We were visiting the Cleveland Correctional Center near Houston, Texas, where an initiative called the Prison Entrepreneurship Program operates.


This holistic program boasts that its admissions process is more competitive than Harvard’s, in terms of number of applications and acceptances.  The goal of the program is to help people help themselves, so the prisoners have to demonstrate their willingness to work and take initiative even to apply by studying for and getting a decent grade on a standardized test.

Those selected will get out of prison in three years or less, and must have a GED.  Their crimes can range from drugs to theft to murder, but PEP does not accept those who have been sexual predators. They must not be a member of a gang, have strong work ethic, and be willing to change.

One prisoner described his arrival at Cleveland Correctional Center.  He was shocked by the difference in culture.  The other prisoners tried to give him hugs, they welcomed him, and he was a bit taken aback. PEP intentionally creates this culture of joy and fun that is different from the regular prison culture.  They even come up with “sweet names” for each person involved, which add humor and fun, and take away some of the “tough guy” mentality.

PEP’s core program involves a “mini-MBA,” where prisoners gain business skills, create their own business plan for a business they can start after leaving prison, and get mentored by volunteers who are top executives.  It’s a lot of work, and it starts with a tough analysis of one’s past life and character.  PEP involves a spiritual change, where these men realize that they can do better and that they are worth it. They learn the ten core principles behind PEP, which include integrity, accountability, and fun.

On the day we visited, they had just finished putting a philanthropic aspect into their business plans.  One prisoner told me that he wanted to start a tire company in Dallas, and then become involved with an organization that helps poor kids get toys.  He also wanted to give to the cancer society because his family had been affected by cancer.

The program has given these men hope.  One man who spoke to the group had been in foster homes and was sexually molested as a child.  He had been involved with drugs, but had finally made a life for himself with honest work, a wife, and child.  But when his wife left him, he was devastated, and had a downward spiral back into the drug world.  Through PEP, he was given hope, and realized that his life was worth something.  He looks forward to getting back on his feet.

We also heard from a graduate of the previous PEP class, who plans to open a shoe shining business when he is released.  He pitched his business plan to us as if we were potential investors.  Each person who spoke, whether it was a prisoner, a staff member, or a PEP volunteer, received a standing ovation and cheering from all the men.

Several PEP graduates already have thriving businesses.  We heard from one graduate, James Cornish, who started a successful business hauling waste away from construction sites – Cornish Trucking.  His family had been involved in the trucking business, and he was excited to follow in their footsteps. People like him who are successful give hope to those who are currently in the program, and make them realize that this is really something possible for them.

When a prisoner completes the 6-month mini-MBA, they have a graduation ceremony, where they receive a certificate of completion, as well as a certificate from Baylor University.  Baylor was impressed with the rigor of the PEP curriculum, which includes college level material and projects, as well as Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  Many of the prisoners have never appeared in a cap and gown before.  PEP highly encourages family members to attend this ceremony.  For some, it is the first time they see their child.


Photo from PEP’s facebook

Upon release from prison, PEP encourages its graduates to live in its transitional housing to help him avoid falling back into his old ways. PEP also offers a business incubator with access to Quickbooks and the Internet, as well as access to continued mentorship.  In the future, the organization plans to broaden its support for its graduates and their businesses.

Having read their website and annual report, some aspects of what I saw did not surprise me. But one thing that impressed me was the sheer enthusiasm of the participants – it was contagious, and soon they had us all clapping, cheering, and even dancing.

I was also impressed with their eagerness to share their experiences.  It was almost as if they had been paid off by the PEP’s development guy. But no, they were genuinely sharing how the program had changed their lives, and how they were excited not only to have the skills to start their business, but to have achieved a character transformation with the support of their brothers and PEP team, and to contribute to the community in a positive way.

Finally, I was impressed by the central focus on character and spiritual transformation.  They call it “Cleveland Cardiac Center” instead of “Cleveland Correctional Center,” because the prisoners focus on changing from the inside out.

Prison Entrepreneurship Program 022713

With a PEP grad who now works for the program


One Comment to “My first time to prison”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. You’re welcome back to prison any time!

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