Good Investments: Teaching Texas Inmates About Business Can Turn Criminals Into CEOs
As profiled in a 2012 Inc. story, Rohr at that time was working for a Manhattan private equity firm and commuting regularly to prison. Specifically, she had found God in her twenties and, as part of a ministry, brought the gospel to Texas prisons. But in between all the Jesus talk, according to the Inc. story, she found that inmates often "exhibited many of the same qualities she looked for when she met with founders as an investor."
By 2004, Rohr had left New York for Houston and founded PEP. An attractive, dynamic speaker, she had no trouble gathering volunteers and media attention. So of course the media were on standby in 2009 when Rohr confessed a transgression and PEP nearly imploded: In the midst of a divorce, Rohr engaged in what have only been described as "inappropriate relationships" with four PEP graduates. Suddenly, the focus wasn't on all the men the program had helped in the previous five years, but on a scandal. As Kris Frieswick reported for Inc., the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, fearing Rohr was a "security risk," conducted an investigation and banned her from ever entering any Texas correctional facility -- one of the rare times a person has been punished by being forced out of prison. Rohr had no choice but to step down from the program she had created.
Whatever concerns prison officials may have had about the program's future were likely tempered by its track record up until that time. Even if Rohr had faltered personally, her formula had been proven a success.
Jason Clark, a spokesman for TDCJ, told the Houston Press in an email that, in 2004, "It was an unknown, but PEP officials were very passionate and were convinced that the program could help tackle one of the biggest barriers for offenders -- employment. Also, the program's approach in pairing successful executives in the corporate world with offenders who had some business skills was unique. Ultimately, the program showed promise, and now, almost ten years later, there are numerous success stories of former offenders who have started businesses and become taxpaying members of society."
But by the time of Rohr's departure, Smith was willing to move from volunteer to CEO. His trips to prison over the years had given him a new outlook.
He may not have felt that way before walking through the prison gates, but after he really got to know the inmates, he says, he saw them "as human beings, not sort of as caged animals, and human beings whose life stories were raw, who in most cases made bad decisions in extremely difficult and unforgiving circumstances. Honestly, I began to have a lot more empathy for them, and felt that if they were willing to commit to living a new life with new values...then I was willing to do what I could to help them."
Around the time Smith joined PEP full-time, an ex-offender named Al Massey became the program's executive relations manager. A big part of Massey's job is recruiting volunteers, like Rohr once did, and perhaps one of his best selling points is himself.
On Halloween night 2003, the 53-year-old Massey was drunk-driving his truck along Beltway 8 when he smashed into the back of a truck that had stalled in the right lane. That truck burst into flames and the driver was killed. Massey pleaded guilty to intoxication manslaughter and was sentenced to six years.
He'd had 35 years of sales management experience, came from a loving family and had a clean record. He'd also been married three times. He never thought he had a drinking problem. He started in sales when three-martini lunches still helped close deals. His thinking was: I never drink at home, so therefore I can't be an alcoholic.
Prison changed that. He had plenty of time to think, and he did whatever he could to keep his mind occupied. He read every day, did crossword puzzles. He took whatever jobs he could, and when the PEP postcard came, he filled it out and sent it back. He figured a business class would help his goal of keeping his mind intact. Soon, he says, he discovered the program was just as much about developing character.
Sixteen other inmates from his unit took the bus to Cleveland Correctional, "and we bonded, and we found out what brotherhood was all about," Massey says. "Because, you know, in prison, it's hard to sometimes let down your guard, because you don't want...people to consider you to be weak or anything like that."
Upon release, Massey moved into one of PEP's transitional homes, found quick work at a moving company that was run by a PEP grad, then got a less back-breaking sales position before the spot at PEP opened up.
Now Massey gives presentations to college business classes, church groups, civic groups, any groups that will listen, to find volunteers.
"You write a business plan, but that's not the nuts and bolts," Massey says of the program. "The nuts and bolts is to make you realize who you were supposed to be, and not who...you've become so far in your life. That there's always a chance to change. Because fresh starts are available."