By Amanda Yarger
Orange is the new green for Baylor business students and prisoners in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.
The Baylor Business Network sponsored an event Tuesday at The Elite Cafe to spread awareness about the program and to recruit volunteers, donors and business plan advisers.
Volunteers in the program meet with prisoners at either of the program sites in Cleveland or Venus, Texas, and assist them in learning entrepreneurial skills that can help the prisoners in the job market upon being released.
Bert Smith, CEO of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, spoke to attendees about the success of the program and the various ways to get involved.
“The [program’s] mission is for a whole life transformation,” Smith said. “Entrepreneurship is the platform as well as a hook.”
In 2013 distinguished Dr. Byron Johnson, professor of sociology, worked with a team of researchers to study the program’s results.
The study found PEP produces a 380 percent reduction in recidivism, defined as the lapse back into crime after correctional time. This contrasts with the 60 percent recidivism rate across the nation, according to the study.
The program helps guide the transition post-release in Dallas and Houston, the two cities that 90 percent of graduates are released to, the study reported.
Since 2004, the program has over 800 graduates, according to the PEP site.
Smith said one goal of the program is to help inmates see that their past mistakes do not have to define their future. Participants in the program work with volunteer business professionals to learn business skills and create plans for future endeavors.
“Problems are not necessary obstacles. They can be opportunities,” Smith said. “If you encounter a problem and think ‘what if’ or ‘why not’ you’re beginning to think of possible solutions to that problem and you don’t see it as a brick wall.”
Baylor partners with the program to provide certified volunteers to work one-on-one with inmates.
“We’ve been partnering with Baylor since 2007 and we recruit MBAs to serve as business plan advisers and also to come to the prisons as executive volunteers,” he said. “They become the sharks in the shark tank — listening to the pitches and giving the guys suggestions on how to make their plans better.”
Tracey Flowers, a graduate of the program who was released earlier this month, provided his testimonial of his experience with the program.
He said being in prison during the entirety of his 20s and a majority of his 30s allowed him to see the person he did not want to be.
“Since PEP, I’ve been transformed and worked everyday,” Flowers said. “I gained a lot of knowledge from those who came before me in the program. We had to grow up fast.”
He urged attendees to consider “going to jail” to offer their experiences and skills to the inmates.
Although the program currently only serves men in Texas penitentiaries, Natalie Baker, the program’s executive relations manager in Dallas, said she wished she had gone through a similar program after her experience in the prison system.
After serving four years for a drunk driving-related accident, Baker said the hardest part was transitioning back into society.
“I was unprepared for the judgement — no one understood what I was going through,” she said. “The first six to nine months I wanted to go back in.”
Although this is a common sentiment among former inmates, the PEP’s successful post-release employment rate also factors into its low recidivism rate, according to Johnson’s study.
The program works off an application and interview process. Applicants must qualify with certain criteria, including their prison sentence ending within the next three years, not being convicted of any sexual crimes and showing a commitment to their future, Smith said.
Meeting the inmates and getting to know their stories can be transformational for volunteers as well.
“It took one time for me to know I needed to serve here,” Smith said. “I left so humbled and inspired.”