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November 3, 2006 - Washington Post (DC)

As Release Nears, These Inmates Are All Business

Street Smarts Are Put to Good Use in TX Program

By Sylvia Moreno, Washington Post Staff Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

BRYAN, Tex. -- His street name was "T-Murder"; his turf, the Deadly Nickel, as Houston's Fifth Ward is known in the 'hood. His business put $25,000 in his pocket monthly.

Those were the days when Thomas Laquea Harrell Sr. ran his own crack cocaine ring, a capital venture that landed him in the Texas prison system with a 25-year sentence. Seven years of incarceration later and a few weeks from being paroled, this entrepreneur is ready to go back to work. But he's going legit.

Harrell has a written business plan, a marketing strategy, a net profit/loss analysis, a projected income statement and a financial summary. All he needs, Harrell recently told a panel of business executives gathered inside the walls of the medium-security Hamilton Unit, is a start-up loan.

"Hello, my name is Thomas Harrell Sr., the founder and owner of Yum Yum's Mobile Catering Service," the animated 31-year-old inmate announced. "We make hot, on-the-spot barbecue meals."

This was Harrell's pitch for his new business, one of 60 similar plans presented by the graduates of an unusual Texas prison program designed to harness a convict's street smarts and funnel them into a legitimate venture upon release.

"We are not so much in the business of creating entrepreneurs as leveraging their skills," said Catherine Rohr, founder of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, a nonprofit organization based in Houston. "After all, it was their entrepreneurial skills that landed them in prison."

Rohr, a one-time venture capitalist in California and New York, was inspired after visiting a prison ministry program in the spring of 2004 that was started by former Watergate conspirator Charles W. Colson. She heard a graduate say that he left prison after eight years and started a general contracting business that made $1.7 million in sales in 18 months.

"I thought I was going on a zoo tour of caged-up animals," recalled Rohr, 29, of that first visit to a prison in Sugar Land, Tex. "Instead, I saw human beings who are just as much in need of grace as I am, and I saw all this untapped potential, good sales skills and decent business sense."

Rohr created a graduate school-style business plan competition there and, within months, quit her job in Manhattan, incorporated her program and moved to Texas. She obtained permission from the state Department of Criminal Justice to locate her program in the Hamilton Unit. The pre-release facility, 100 miles northwest of Houston, houses 1,200 inmates who participate in a special therapeutic program for six to eight months before their discharge.

Rohr has instituted a rigorous business curriculum: more than 350 hours of class time, taught by 100 business executives whom she recruits; exams; extensive writing assignments; and tough homework penalties for inmates who do anything from utter a curse word to fail a test. Prisoners are paired with Harvard and Texas A&M University students, online or in person, who help edit their business plans. The executives then judge the plans.

First, though, inmates must qualify for PEP, as the program is known. They must have renounced any prison gang affiliation and must fill out a 23-page questionnaire, learn 10 pages of financial terminology, take four tests and be interviewed by almost a dozen corporate executives and PEP graduates. Important as the tests and interviews are, Rohr said, "the number one thing we look for in inmates is change."

This summer, 150 prisoners applied for PEP's fourth class; 84 were selected, and 60 completed the four-month course. On a recent cool evening, the graduates marched single file in their blue caps and gowns into the basketball court in the middle of the prison yard, the concrete slab fenced off by a tall chain-link fence topped with concertina wire.

"Pomp and Circumstance" played over a makeshift sound system operated by a white-uniformed inmate. The graduates' relatives and the corporate executives who earlier judged the business plans gave the men a standing ovation.

For about half the graduates -- ranging in age from 20 years old to over 60, serving time for crimes from burglary to murder -- this was their first formal cap and gown ceremony.

"Families -- your sons, your husbands, your boyfriends, your brothers here tonight have probably robbed you and probably lied to you," Rohr said as the graduation began. "I stand here before you to vouch for these men. . . . They are capable of going out and being productive members of society."

Including this class, PEP has graduated 220 participants, and 175 have been released from prison. Rohr said 21 former inmates have started or operate small businesses. Almost 40 have completed PEP's post-prison executive course offered in Houston and Dallas and are being mentored by corporate executives. The employment rate among PEP graduates is over 93 percent, she said, and the recidivism rate has been less than 5 percent.

During the graduation ceremony and throughout the day, inmates often thanked the executives for volunteering as teachers and as judges for the two-day business plan competition.

"They could be anywhere in the world but chose to be here with me, and I can't even get a letter from my dad," said inmate Cory Seago, 27, breaking into tears as he spoke from the graduation podium. "I've been in prison two times. I lost everything: my hope, my dreams, my confidence. PEP's been more than a business class for me. I learned about love."

For many executives, the experience was transformative as well. Geoff Jones, chief financial officer of Trico Marine Services of Houston, conceded he was apprehensive when he first entered the prison. "You think you're going to go in there and feel unsafe and be surrounded by undesirables," he said.

Instead, Jones said, he was impressed by the quality of the business plans and the presentations. "They believed in what they were telling you, and it meant a lot to them. It was their chance to impress somebody in the free world," he said.

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