Good Investments: Teaching Texas Inmates About Business Can Turn Criminals Into CEOs
While PEP is about to launch its program in TDCJ's Sanders Estes unit, it has operated solely from the privately run Cleveland Correctional Center, about 40 miles north of Houston. Participants are accepted from prisons across the state after a rigorous application process.
Despite its own significant stumble five years in when it was discovered that founder Catherine Rohr had engaged in inappropriate relationships with four graduates and had to resign, the program continues to attract volunteer executives and business owners -- "repeat attenders," in local parlance -- as well as interest from other state correctional departments. But other prison systems have yet to implement anything like it -- PEP appears to be the only program of its kind in the nation. That might be because it serves a demographic that is easy to ignore or even look at in practical terms: Nationally, hundreds of thousands of offenders are released each year. Many of them will commit new felonies and go right back in.
If a system could even up those odds -- if it could look at a group of drug dealers, thieves and murderers and see potential taxpaying, productive members of society, then those people would become more than just ex-offenders. They would become a good investment.
"General George S. Patton said, 'When compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.' Clearly, General Patton has never had his business plan critiqued by you."
Return on investment is where it's at.
Jeremy Gregg, PEP's chief development officer, made this point at a series of TED talks in 2012. Delivering easily digestible stats in high-energy bursts, Gregg assumed the role of pitchman -- a carnival barker urging the audience to look at the untapped market potential inside his "gated community."
Gregg, an executive MBA with a history in nonprofits, first volunteered for PEP in 2007. Looking at the nation's correctional system through a purely financial lens, he saw a black hole.
"This is a deeply troubling financial issue," he told the audience. "We will pour $74 billion...into corrections this year."
Speaking strictly as a taxpayer, Gregg said, "I wouldn't have a problem with it if it worked, but it doesn't." That's when the startling statistics flashed on the screen behind him: According to national recidivism statistics, half of the 700,000 offenders released in 2012 were predicted to return in 2016, having committed a new felony. That's one crappy ROI.
But graduates of the six-month program were a different story, Gregg told his audience. These guys learn skills. They use college-level textbooks and the AP writing style guide, and study Harvard MBA cases. And, as Gregg is fond of pointing out, "These guys literally read and discuss Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment while sitting in prison."
Not all inmates are eligible for the program: Sex offenders are prohibited, as is any inmate with current gang ties or recent and significant disciplinary actions. Inmates must also be within three years of release. For each six-month block, there are approximately 6,000 eligible inmates in TDCJ. About one in four return postcards expressing interest in applying. In return, they get a roughly 20-page application packet; about two-thirds actually apply. Then there's more reading requirements, a test and an interview. About 47-48 percent were convicted of a violent crime -- murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault or robbery. The average participant is serving his second sentence. (The program's directors have chosen to offer it only to male prisoners because they make up the overwhelming majority -- 93 percent -- of the total Texas inmate population, according to recent statistics.)