Sunday, July 13, 2008

Pops Went To Prison - Part 2

Owning a business will allow PEP students, who can’t easily find jobs because of their criminal records, to support themselves in the free world. Their concepts range from general contracting and automotive detailing to janitorial services. The visiting mentors help PEP students write and revise business plans and practice soft skills like making small talk. In front of the entire group, each inmate must share his nickname and tout his employable skills in a 30-second “commercial” for the company he dreams of starting. The inmates also practice making cold calls, with guests playing the role of potential customers in one-on-one conversations across tables in the mess hall. Mentors offer constructive criticism of verbal and written communications.

Awaiting his turn to practice with a visitor, “Feathers” starts shaking.
“Are you okay?” a guest asks.

“I just haven’t had free-world coffee in a long time,” Feathers admits, contrasting the java offered during PEP visitation weekends with the instant powdered mix he and other inmates usually drink.

Another PEP student, “Dora the Explorer,” wants to offer computer repair services to Spanish-speaking customers. Dora (whose real name is Juan) is 34 and earned an associate degree during his 15-year sentence. As he talks about his release in a few months, he breaks into a nervous sweat, confiding that he’s never seen or used a cell phone. He says PEP is “providing the footstool I need to step up in life.”

Changing lives. Thirty-year-old Rohr doesn’t have a degree in social work or counseling. She previously worked for venture capital and private equity firms in California and New York City. Rohr describes her attitude toward people in prison at that time in her life: “‘Who cares if you kill a couple of them who are innocent, ’cause they’re sucking up our taxpayer dollars. Just wipe ’em out.’ I used to say horrible things. I was definitely a lock ’em up and throw away the key type.” Getting married prompted Rohr, a Catholic who “wasn’t feelin’ it,” and her husband, a “good Lutheran boy,” to start visiting new churches together.

Rohr’s view of inmates changed one Easter weekend, when she and her husband visited a prison through a program led by Chuck Colson. “When I went on that first prison tour … I really thought that I was going to see these wild caged animals. When I arrived to prison and saw human beings who were just as much in need of grace as I am, I was humbled, more than ashamed, and really saw the ugliness in my own heart.”

The experience led Rohr and her husband to reaffirm their Christian faith, and in their new zeal they felt called to found PEP.

“I cannot really see myself doing this without someone who really loves God. [Otherwise] I don’t think he could support the very difficult life decisions we’ve made that have been led by obedience,” says Rohr. “You don’t do this kind of stuff to be a good person. You do it because you’re called to do it and you believe God’s promises.”

Rohr and her husband cashed in their 401(k)s, with penalties for early withdrawal, to found the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. “We packed up all of our stuff, everything that we owned. We didn’t even know where we were going to be living,” she recalls. “Everything we needed for the next four months ... we put in a minivan, drove out, and it was 1 in the morning when we arrived in Texas. We were too tired to unpack the car.”

Before dawn, they were robbed. “Everything was taken, all of my clothes, everything. I woke up my first morning in Texas and had no money, no home, nothing to wear.”

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