Bert got involved with the Prison Entrepreneurship Program when he heard someone ask the question, “What if you were best known for the worst thing you have done in your life?”
He had lots of life experiences that gave him the possibility to advance professionally and even to start successful businesses. He decided it was time to give back.
He volunteered with the organization for 5 years. Now he is the Chief Empowerment Officer.
Several important and shocking facts:
- The USA is only 5% of the world’s population, but we have 25% of the world’s criminals.
- The rate in which people return to jail after release is 50%-60%
- We spend 80 million dollars annually on prisons.
- Children of prisoners have a higher chance of going to prison.
- People with low income have a higher chance of going to prison.
- 1 in 30 prisoners is white, 1 in 6 Mexican, and 1 in 3 Black!
The Prison Entrepreneurship Program was started in order to teach prisoners to start and run a business. It is like an MBA program in prison.
The program has high standards for entry into the program. They look at several things. One is the applicant's level of education. It is really difficult to succeed in the program if a prisoner is starting without being able to read, for example. Most important, they look for men who are committed to change. The program requires an application and out of 20,000 prisoners who apply only 1000 a year are accepted.
The curriculum is intense. A textbook from college is used. It starts with a three month leadership academy which includes character assessment and development.
It ends with a Business Plan competition. Anyone can attend these. Look for a schedule online. It is like the Shark Tank although there is no money to be won.
After the rounds of presentations there is a very emotional graduation service and successful participants are presented with a certificate. They are encouraged to have four family members attend who are willing to give them one more chance.
They are also given reentry support. They receive job leads, mentoring and transitional housing is available. They get help preparing for interviews.
If anyone wants to donate to the program to help with getting started capital go to Kiva.
According to an outside study there is no selection bias and 100% of their graduates have their first job within 90 days of release from prison! After a year about 90% are employed. The recidivism rate is below 7%.
GRADUATE OF THE PROGRAM
RJ Rodriguez is a graduate of the program. He shared his situation with us. He was incarcerated at age 17 and did not graduate from High School. He talked about how depressing prison can be and how hopeless he felt. He said that most of the population in jail rots.
For him hope came when he received a postcard telling about the program and how to apply.
He has been home for 5 years. He got his GED and is going to ACC. He has been accepted to UT and will start in the spring.
VOLUNTEER WITH THE PROGRAM
Bob Leaver is a volunteer. He shared his experience. He said that volunteers dress up in business attire. He encouraged anyone to come and see what it is like. On the table there were Get into Jail Free cards which showed how anyone can visit the program.
ANSWERS FROM AUDIENCE QUESTIONS
- The organization is coming to Austin.
- Right now they only work with 2% of the prison population. They hope to increase it to 10% by 2026.
- They are working toward a similar program for women.
- The program is tough, very intense. About 35% of those who start the program do not make it to the end.