By Stephany Bittar

Photo courtesy of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program’s official website.

Two-thirds of the 2.3 million Americans that are currently housed in the U.S. state and federal prison systems are expected to reoffend within three years of their release. Recidivism, or the tendency of a criminal to reoffend, is one of the most prevalent social problems facing current and former prisoners.

High recidivism rates found in the United States have a number of potential causes, but research has yet to find a specific cause, or provide definitive support for any one theory. Nevertheless, empirical evidence provides little support for incarceration as a general way to reduce recidivism. An essay written by criminologists Francis Cullen, Cheryl Johnson, and Daniel Nagin in The Prison Journal reviewed five studies and included data and statistics from over 50 others. Combined, the results showed that custodial sentencing – that is, a sentence where the offender is required to be held in custody – increased recidivism rates by seven to eleven percent.

Recidivism rates in privately-operated prisons may be even higher than those in public prisons. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), or CoreCivic, received its first contract to take over a facility in 1984. Today, CoreCivic remains the biggest name in private prisons, and operates over 60 facilities nationwide. Although CoreCivic’s prisons offer a variety of different programs designed to prepare inmates for re-entry into society, the think tank In The Public Interest reports that between 13 and 18 percent more inmates at private prisons will reoffend compared to inmates at public prisons. Another academic study of Florida prisons found no difference between recidivism in private versus public prisons.

Enter the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) founded in 2004. PEP is a private, nonprofit program focused on using education and entrepreneurship as a tool to reducing recidivism and successfully transitioning formerly incarcerated people into their communities and labor forces. PEP participants are recruited from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and brought to the Cleveland Correctional Center in Cleveland, Texas. PEP provides in-prison programming and post-release services in Houston and Dallas, where over 90 percent of PEP participants return after completing their sentences. By 2009, PEP had achieved a recidivism rate of less than 10 percent – or half the average rate of Texas state prisons.

The services offered through PEP and those offered by CoreCivic are extremely similar, including academic education, life skills training, faith-based programs, although PEP refers to initiatives as value-based growth programs, vocational training, and family unification programs. PEP also focuses on character formation and features a mentorship program in association with its Business Plan Competition, or BPC. A six-month class, the BPC includes over 1,000 hours of instruction, group assignments, individual work, and even public events with PEP volunteers. The goal of the BPC is for inmates to create business plans at the MBA level, which they present during a two-day competition that ends in a graduation ceremony, the first a majority of PEP’s 1,300 plus graduates have ever had.

The return on investment for PEP can be measured beyond recidivism rates. PEP graduates average 20 days “from prison to paycheck”, and 100 percent of PEP graduates have jobs within 90 days of release. One year after release, almost all of them are still employed. Over 200 businesses have been launched by PEP graduates. Beyond the program itself, PEP creates an atmosphere of community and brotherhood, which adds to the long-term power of the program. A key part of the success of PEP stems from the network of PEP graduates that help each other find employment and sustain positive change after release. By emphasizing values-based growth, PEP creates an environment that fosters personal growth and development. The Business Plan Competition is designed to create plans that would rival those of a typical M.B.A. holder. The volunteer mentors that provide a backbone for the BPC are motivated, business-oriented individuals who want to see their mentees succeed. PEP has an estimated 340 percent return on investment for every dollar donated to their program, because each participant is exponentially less likely to reoffend, less likely to depend on government assistance, and more likely to pay child support.

Ultimately, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program works well because of the way it approaches the task of behavioral change. PEP is focused on the future success of its participants, rather than the financial aspects of their incarceration – there is a reversal of incentives. Where for-profit prisons have nothing to gain from a low prison population, since their profits increase with each additional inmate, PEP can only gain by improving the long-term quality of life of its participants. The Florida Department of Corrections could benefit greatly from the implementation of PEP or a similar program. The state of Florida has one of the highest incarceration rates in the United States, and among large states is second only to Texas, where PEP recruits out of. Implementing a program like PEP in public and private Florida prisons alike would help the Department of Corrections start to address this issue and lower the incarceration rate for the state.

Photo courtesy of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program’s official website.



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