Sunday, July 13, 2008

Pops Went To Prison and Came Out a Changed Man

Below is Part 1 of an article published in "Sojounors Magazine" by someone else who had the same experience.

Dozens of guests arrive by the carload from Houston and Dallas just before sunset on Friday night. After showing ID, they’re escorted to a carpeted room with leather couches, warm lighting, and OutKast’s “Hey Ya” blasting.

Among the new arrivals, about 15 percent are MBA students and professors from graduate degree programs like one at the University of Dallas, a private Catholic liberal arts school. The other 85 percent are business professionals recruited by their peers, social entrepreneurship programs, and guest speakers at their churches.

All are welcomed in a receiving line with firm handshakes, warm smiles, and hearty bear hugs from students in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP). Soon, about three dozen of 90 inmates initially selected for Class VIII will graduate from the four-month program and be released from Texas’ Cleveland Correctional Center, less than an hour’s drive from PEP’s Houston headquarters.

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program is unique in the United States, helping people with felony convictions break the cycle of incarceration by starting their own sole proprietorships. During its first four years, PEP training and support have enabled more than 10 percent of its graduates to launch their own businesses—some with outside funding. Most inmates know how to hustle and possess employable skills. (Drug dealing, after all, requires an understanding of sales and distribution.) Several PEP students also earned associates degrees while incarcerated.

Outside MBA candidates not only volunteer as mentors, they actually pay tuition for credit hours earned while visiting the prison. The first grad school to affiliate with PEP was Harvard. Since then, mentors have visited Texas from around the country, and PEP has formalized relationships with several business schools and sponsor churches.

Do a little dance. After a rigorous selection process including written tests and interviews, PEP students must first learn to get along with each other. Founder Catherine Rohr starts with an exercise familiar to anyone who has participated in church camp ice-breakers: the chicken dance. At first, it’s visibly, painfully awkward for these men (conditioned to watch their backs and avoid physical contact with other inmates at all cost) to look silly in front of each other, much less swing each other ’round by the arm.

Cleveland Correctional Center is a minimum security facility for prisoners in the final years of sentences they’re serving for unpaid taxes and child support, violent crimes, and various drug charges, among other offenses. It’s a joyless, colorless building with fluorescent lighting, cold slab floors, and cinder-block walls. About 40 percent of Texas inmates are black, 30 percent are Latino, and 30 percent are white, and inmates of different races rarely socialize with one another due to the threat of gang violence in prisons. About one-fourth of Cleveland’s 530 inmates are in PEP. The program has been supported by both the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the private company that now runs the jail—largely because of the program’s proven successes.

As the PEP visitors’ weekend begins, the goofy music quickly breaks down barriers. Through repetition of dancing at the start of every session, these students gradually become more relaxed. Mentors join the dance as well. PEP also lets pupils rename each other. Most are just a number in the system, and inmates call each other by nicknames that are often gruesome and raunchy, recalling the incidents that led to their conviction. (PEP does not accept sex offenders.) Being identified solely by the worst thing they’ve ever done undercuts the inmates’ self-esteem, and overcoming that isn’t easy. In PEP, they give each other new names as innocuous and playful as their dance moves, like “Peaches,” “Baby D,” and “Moon Pie.”

Visitors and classmates are further introduced through a drill from the movie Freedom Writers, where a strip of tape on the floor dividing volunteers and inmates becomes common ground. Rohr asks participants to “step to the line” if they like country music or hip-hop; grew up in a single-parent household; have been evicted; joined a gang; witnessed or survived abuse; and so on.

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