Business Behind Bars - Part 2

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Learning business behind the bars and barbed wire at the Hamilton unit in Bryan is no easy task. But that's just what they are doing through the Prison Entrepreneurial Program or PEP.

"Their skills are such that they will be able to achieve great things out there in society, if we can help open the doors for them," said Catherine Rohr.

Rohr founded the PEP program. It's a four month course designed to prepare inmates for a life in business outside of prison.

Throughout their PEP training, inmates will attend classes, be assigned homework, create a business plan, and deliver presentations. PEP brings in business executives and editors to share their knowledge with the inmates.

"They're instrumental, their involved every step of the way. They're involved as judges in the competition, as mentors, they are coaching our guys and showing them the ropes," said Rohr.

The May's Business School at Texas A&M University is heavily involved with the entrepreneurship program. The school, along with Harvard Business School, is one of just two MBA programs, partnered with PEP.

"They are required to come up with questions they want answers to, they are required to identify the key issues," said Mays Business School Dean, Jerry Strawser. "What they do is ask us to give them some information that we're able to obtain either through our own knowledge or the research we do."

It's not only the inmates at the Hamilton unit who are benefiting from the involvement of the May's school. A&M students also learn from their experiences in helping with PEP.

"It gives our students an opportunity to take what they're learning in the classroom and apply it in a real business setting," said Strawser.

After working with the men at the Hamilton unit, Rohr began to understand the needs of the participants upon their release. Many inmates, when faced with the pressures of the outside world, often found themselves right back in prison.

"I soon realized, it was probably because we send them out of prison with a hundred dollars and a one way ticket to the city where they committed their crime, and the clothes on their back, and that is all," said Rohr.

That's when Rohr realized the need for an outside program.

Rohr said, "Now we pick them up at the gate when they are released, we start arranging jobs for them whenever possible while they are still locked up."

Phase two of the program doesn't stop there. After inmates are released, they also have the opportunity to continue their education with PEP and the entrepreneurial schools.

Mentors are also assigned to each participant in the second phase to help them become successful law abiding citizens.

Mike Tice graduated from both phases of PEP and has successfully established his own construction company.

Tice is appreciative of the lessons PEP taught him in business planning because finding employment after having a criminal record, is difficult.

"A person in a position coming out with a conviction, it's tough, very tough to get an employer to even talk to you," said Tice.

Graduation day for participants of PEP is the culmination of all their hard work. This year, the Hamilton Unit invited the family members of PEP participants to the prison, to watch the ceremony.

"Graduation night is the best part of the program, and as far as the inmate population, most of them feel like they have really earned something and it means a lot to me to see them be able to walk across the stage and receive their reward," said Warden Mark Jones.

The sound of Pomp and Circumstance filled the air as the men, one by one, filed out in their caps and gowns, while big smiles swept across their faces.

"For many, it represents the biggest achievement of their lives. For many, it's their first time in caps and gowns," said Rohr.

Participants Cory Seago and Thomas "Yum-Yum" Harrell proudly took their seats among the rest of PEP class four.

"I haven't finished a lot of things I have started in my life, and I wanted to finish something I had started," said Seago.

"It's one of the greatest accomplishments I've ever made in my life," said Harrell.

"They've worked extremely hard and we're so proud of them," said Rohr.

As the sun set on the graduation of class four from PEP, class five of PEP is already waiting in the wings. Giving another set of inmates at the Hamilton Unit, a second chance to rebuild their lives upon release.