Catherine Rohr, a private-equity investor, was a long way from Wall Street when she decided to visit a prison in Sugar Land, Texas, four years ago. What she witnessed there changed her life.
"I thought I was going on this zoo tour to see these wild caged animals. Instead, I saw many men who were repentant and had their hands up in the air, worshiping God," Rohr, then 26, told CT. "I found it ironic that the closest I ever felt to God was in prison on Easter weekend. I had been so condemning of these men, but I felt that they really knew God."
Rohr spoke with the inmates about how they ended up behind bars, about leading gangs and running drugs, and she quickly decided that prison was a "storehouse of untapped potential." The men she encountered were brimming with business savvy. It was just misdirected.
A month later, Rohr launched the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), which offers business training from MBA students at elite schools such as Harvard and Wharton—and from some of the 4,000 CEOs in Rohr's Rolodex.
Rohr and her husband, a New York lawyer, rearranged their lives to make it happen. They left high-paying jobs, invested $50,000 of their own money, emptied Rohr's 401k, and even sold her wedding ring. After four months, the couple moved to Houston, not knowing where they would sleep: all their possessions were stolen out of their van the day they arrived.
Since those early struggles, PEP has graduated 420 students as of this August. Program instructors help participants develop business plans they can use upon their release: theft-reduction, landscaping, real estate, and so on. Rooted heavily in Christian values, weekly instruction is also devoted to morality and discipline, but submitting to God is not a requirement for graduation.
"They get a really strong business education that would rival a mini-MBA program. But they didn't come to prison for being bad businessmen. They came because they gave into shortcuts; they didn't realize their temptations," Rohr said. "So we work on recovering or sometimes recreating their identities, teaching them to be men of honor. I tell them, 'You've taken so much from the community; it's time for you to give back.' "
Open to inmates throughout the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the program, located at the prison in Cleveland, Texas, is selective, accepting only those students committed to leaving crime behind. The man tasked with sifting the wheat from the chaff is Mario Soto, a program graduate whose first taste of prison followed his non-fatal shooting of two persons when he was 14. "I try to look deep into their hearts," Soto said. "I get them comfortable and try to understand not just why they did what they did, but if they are really ready for change as well."
Michael Cevallos, who had been incarcerated off and on for 23 of his 40 years, certainly had plenty of chances. But Cevallos said he has finally turned the corner. He was released in May, and a few weeks later, he and a former classmate launched a faith-based moving company, Moved By Love. The difference, for him, was simple.
"God and PEP," he said. "I say PEP, but God is all over that program. I've done a lot of maturing through it. I've been an entrepreneur in different areas since I was young. I started selling drugs very young with my father. I've been in the entrepreneurial field—just on the wrong side of it."
Brad A. Greenberg, an LA-based journalist, writes at TheGodBlog.org.
Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Go to Prison Entrepreneurship Program's website for more information.
The Washington Post also featured PEP.
This article is the third of five profiles in Christianity Today's cover package on "The New Culture Makers."
Christianity Today also wrote about artist Makoto Fujimura and Wedgwood Circle a group of angel investors.
Crouch spoke with CT about culture making on a local scale.
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