If you’re a convicted criminal, finding a job while you’re in prison is often easier than getting one after you’ve served your time. Because of an expansive list of mandatory post-release sanctions, inmates often leave prison facing what Jeremy Travis, the president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former director of the National Institute of Justice, has called a secondary “invisible punishment” that is frequently more severe than the one levied by any judge or jury.
But what if inmates can be taught how to work— or even to create their own jobs? That’s the model used by Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), a privately funded, multimillion-dollar nonprofit based in Houston, Texas. Originally launched as a Christian ministry venture, PEP operates on the belief that individuals have worth, that lives and their trajectories can change, and that hard work and discipline bring rewards.
As Laura Edghill of WORLD magazine explains,
PEP pairs prisoners with successful business executives, entrepreneurs, and MBA students. Predicated on the belief that motivated inmates will “thrive on challenge and opportunity,” PEP students engage in a rigorous curriculum culminating with the presentation of their business proposals. Over the course of the two-year program, inmates learn how to finance a business, how to market products, and how to sell themselves and their stories.
The course work is sufficiently demanding that Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business awards a certificate of entrepreneurship to each graduate.
And what happens when those inmates are released? Since it began operating in 2004, PEP has graduated more than 1,100 students. About 165 have opened businesses, and at least two are grossing more than $1 million. Within 90 days of their release, nearly all the ex-inmates have found jobs.