Program Teaches Inmates Private Enterprise


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.

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Posted by on Apr 1st, 2013 and filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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