Program teaches inmates private enterprise

Training scheme claims a 3-year recidivism rate of only 7 percent

By Allan Turner
Houston Chronicle

CLEVELAND, Texas (AP) — Richard Rodriguez has a plan. With $100,000 in backing, the veteran oil field worker dreams of launching his own well service company in North Texas’ bustling energy fields. When competitors balk at a job, Rodriguez, spurred by vision and eagerness to work, will be there.

“Rain, sleet or snow, we’ll go,” he insists to a group of aspiring businessmen. Once successful, he will turn his profits to helping others. Having grown up poor, he pledges no other youth within his reach will suffer poverty. “This isn’t a fly-by-night. This is a foundation for families. ... For something great to happen, it takes a really great dream.”

Right now, all Rodriguez has is a dream — and at least two more years to serve on a 12-year prison sentence for burglary. Many prison dreams, he must know, do not come true. In Texas, 23 percent of released inmates return to prison within three years.

Still, Rodriguez and the 115 prisoners listening to his pitch at the minimum-security Cleveland Unit on this winter morning may have a better shot at success than most. They are students in the unit’s Prison Entrepreneurship Program, a privately-run “mini-MBA” program that coaches inmates on how to create and operate businesses, then assists them in doing so in the free world.

Now instructing their 19th class — the program has graduated 800 students since its 2004 founding — the program officials claim a three-year recidivism rate of only 7 percent.

“In eight years, we believe that at least 120 businesses have been started,” said program CEO Bert Smith, a longtime Houston lawyer and businessman. “In the last three years, 100 percent of our graduates have been employed within 90 days of their release.”

Smith attributes the donation-supported program’s apparent success to its presence inside the prison, where it provides courses in character development and business practices, and outside, where it offers housing and job placement assistance, advanced instruction and mentoring by successful businessmen.

A willingness to accept responsibility for past crimes and a genuine desire to change are keys to participants’ success, program leaders said. Except for those convicted of sex offenses, the program is open to male state inmates anywhere in Texas who will be eligible for parole within three years. Only about 5 percent of applicants are accepted.

Raymond White, left, Class 17 graduate, and Agustin Sierra, Class 18 graduate, work in the prison library.

Potential participants must go through a three-month, 22-hour-a-week exercise in character development. Then comes a six-month, 40-hour-a-week college-level entrepreneurship course.

Once in the program, students must generate business plans and deliver the “pitches” to their peers dozens of times. Volunteer businesspeople judge the quality of the plans and offer suggestions for improvement.

In class and out, the students’ behavior constantly is watched. About 25 percent of each class drops out — or is severed — before graduation. Upon graduation, they receive a “certificate of entrepreneurship” from Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business.

After release, graduates have the option of moving to transitional housing in Houston or Dallas, where they are helped in finding jobs, and continuing their business training in weekly entrepreneurship classes.

The program’s prison initiatives manager, Pat McGee, a murderer who rebuilt his life after graduating from the program and obtaining multiple degrees, said he tells the men they must accept responsibility for their crimes and forgive themselves.

Inmates in Cleveland are reminded of the 10 driving values of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, which also emphasizes accepting responsibility.

Three-quarters of the current class first were arrested before age 18, said Jeremy Gregg, PEP chief development officer. Forty percent have lost at least one close family member to violence; a third had a parent who had been incarcerated during their childhood; more than half have only a high school education or its equivalent. Most of the students have been to prison two or three times; half have committed violent offenses.

Rodriguez, 31, the optimistic future well service operator, was 18 when he assaulted a police officer and was handed a two-year sentence. The father of two young children insists that, with God’s help, his future will be that much brighter.

His business, he told the Houston Chronicle, will concentrate on the oil fields about 18 miles south of Vernon, providing services ranging from sophisticated well maintenance to “routine roustabouting.” “Our desire and dedication,” he says, “are to pure excellence in this industry.”

Such sentiments surprised Smith when he first visited the program as a volunteer eight years ago. “I expected to meet caged animals, very rough, very aggressive and very cynical men,” he says. “I met these men who were very optimistic and determined in a way that many of us in free world business aspire to be.”

Ironically, says Smith, his students’ rough lives may provide a useful background for prospering in the seesaw world of legitimate business. Every successful businessman has failed, and the ability to regroup is key to future success, he says.

“With that big ‘X’ on their backs,” Smith says, “these men have been through so much that they have developed a remarkable degree of resilience.”
Mark Zertuche, 30, had tasted the dregs of criminal life.

When relatives stopped bringing his daughter to visit him in prison, where he was serving a sentence for aggravated robbery, he recognized a need for change.

“I went back to the cell block and smelled the homemade wine, the cigarette smoke, the marijuana. I looked around at everything and said, ‘What the heck am I doing here?’?” he recalls.

The program, he says, “made a very big difference in my life. It built values, morals, stability and hard work. It changed my character.”

After parole, Zertuche put his prison-crafted business plan for a concrete construction company in motion. Dynasty Construction has grown to eight employees. More importantly, he says, it helped reunite him with his daughter, now 13.

“She’s why I breathe. The only way I can teach her to be a responsible woman is by example,” he said.

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