Business Behind Bars - Part 1

By: Kristen Ross
By: Kristen Ross

Behind the barbed wire and prison walls, some inmates at the Hamilton Unit in Bryan have found themselves in the business of business. But these inmates aren't up to no good, as a matter of fact they are trying to turn bad choices into good.

Each has been given, what many think of as their, second chance through the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, or PEP.

The program offers entrepreneurial training and teaches inmates how to create their own businesses.

"Over the course of four months the inmates will meet about a hundred different business executives, give their business plan presentations, in some form or another fifty separate times," said PEP Founder, Catherine Rohr.

Rohr said she felt divinely inspired to create the program after she ventured inside the prison walls.

"I really thought just from the movies that I might be going on a zoo tour, that I might be going to see caged up animals. I was a little bit afraid," said Rohr.

What she found was something much different.

" I felt ashamed of the perceptions I had carried, the way I had labeled these people," said Rohr. "I definitely saw that they were people, I saw that they were people who had a lot of talent and as a venture capitalist trained to recognize opportunity I saw that they had tremendous potential."

The Hamilton Unit is a pre-release facility.

Catherine believes this is a critical time to equip these men with skills as they prepare to re-enter society. However, the program is designed to only help those who want to help themselves.

"If they haven't already made the commitment to change their lives I tell them they shouldn't bother applying. And if they have, they can fill out the twenty-three page application process, take four tests, and they go through eleven interviews, " said Rohr.

This group is only the fourth class to go through PEP. Only 84 of the 150 applicants were accepted. Those who make it face a rigorous schedule of classes, homework, and creating a business plan.

Rohr said," They have taken thirty-three tests in seventeen weeks."

The demanding course load will whittle the class down further. Out of the 84 who started, only 60 will see graduation.

Two men who have completed the program are Cory Seago and Thomas Harrell.

Cory Seago, who was first incarcerated in January of 2005 on drug charges hopes to open a stone counter top business once he is released.

"Whenever I started my drug and criminal addiction I lost a lot of things in my life, my hope, my dreams, my goals, my outlook on life, my love for myself and others, and with PEP I've gained all that back," said Seago. "Respect for myself, confidence, my drive, and I'm ready to go give it all I've got."

Thomas Harrell, affectionately called "Yum-Yum" by friends after the name of the catering business he plans to open, was first sent to prison back in 1999 for possession of a controlled substance.

During his seven year term, "Yum-Yum" has seen some major changes in his life, thanks to PEP.

"I've made dramatic changes as far as the way I used to speak, as fare as my vocabulary, things I used to do I no longer do anymore. People I used to hang around with I no longer hang around," said Harrell.

PEP members have gained much in the terms business strategies, but they have also developed forever friendships with their brothers in the class.

Tuesday night, find out how Texas A&M is involved in the success of PEP.


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