Sunday, July 13, 2008

Pops Went To Prison - Part 3

Rohr went to church, where strangers worshiping with her collected a love offering to help restart her life. Rohr was humbled, her faith strengthened, and she felt more empathetic than ever to those she felt called to serve.

“This is also a ministry for the free world people,” says Luis Romo, an ordained Methodist minister. “It gives business people and business students a way to put their faith into action without having to negate their current occupation or career or studies,” Romo says. “In the church, we tell business people ‘Go to work and share your faith,’ but the business people are saying, ‘How can I put my business skills and passion, something I believe God’s given me, into a practice that helps others?’”

Romo was a pastor in an affluent Houston suburb. “When I invited Catherine to come speak at our church, I wanted our church to partner with her and say we will back up PEP, not just with money, but with our people and whatever else we can do ... and [I] saw very little response from the church overall. I was very disappointed.” So Romo left the pulpit to work full-time as the Prison Entrepre­neurship Program’s director of church relations, “not just to help churches help PEP, but hopefully to reframe the way they think about justice, the way they think about prisoners, the way they think about redemption.”

“As the book of James says, faith without works is dead,” Romo continues. “We try to bring those together in a way that says ‘Christ loves you and so do we. More important, we love Him, and this is how we do it.’ And I think they see it in a practical way. That doesn’t mean it’s all ‘Do you accept Christ in your heart?’ but we’re going to hold you accountable, and you choose to enter in these principles. Whether or not you choose to follow ’em when you leave here, that’s between you and God, but as long as you’re here, it provides a guideline for these guys to interact with each other and to grow and to learn.”

In addition to Romo, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program has hired staff (including several PEP graduates) to meet alumni at the gate when they’re released, offer ongoing support through Dallas and Houston field offices, and handle public relations. Another employee helps inmates regain their family members’ trust. Guests and churches sponsor reunification scholarships of $750, which covers travel, lodging, and food for inmates’ relatives on visitation weekends. Graduates who live with family rather than in a halfway house decrease their chances of getting in trouble.

For those unable to reconnect with family members, re-entry scholarships pay for an interview suit, halfway house rent, food, and a phone for electronic monitoring and job-seeking. So far, 97 percent of PEP alumni have found jobs within three weeks of release, and most earn at least $12 an hour. The recidivism rate of graduates is a mere 4.4 percent within three years of release.

One Class VII alumnus, Will Gibson, is a baby-faced 28-year-old redhead who was paroled five weeks ago. He lives with his parents in an upscale Dallas suburb and was hired as a waiter five days after his release. He is visiting the prison this weekend as a PEP mentor.

“There’s a new nervousness that comes upon you,” he tells the class. “You can’t practice this stuff enough in here, because it’s much harder out there ... but I’m here to tell you, the free world’s really good.”

When reflecting on his experience in the class, Gibson says, “PEP taught me a deeper sense of accountability and what it means to live right.”

Gibson is among those who offers the program its financial support, using tips from his newfound job to sponsor a scholarship for “Peaches.” Like Gibson, most Prison Entrepreneurship Pro­gram alumni tithe to PEP or their churches following their release.

PEP spends approximately $10,000 per student, compared to Texas’ annual cost of $30,000 per inmate. The program provides a model other states may wish to follow.

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