Ex-Inmate Entrepreneurs: Some Thrive, Others Need Structure


The New York Times business section takes a look at the Houston-based Prison Entrepreneurship Program, aimed at helping former inmates start their own businesses. The program was described last year in Crime & Justice News. “We try to help these guys realize that the skills they already possess from illegal ventures have real value in the business world,” program director Catherine Rohr told the Times. “Major drug dealers are already proven entrepreneurs.” The program works with men incarcerated in Texas and spends about $15,000 on each graduate. Last year, it raised $2.5 million from private sources. Rohr, a business school graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, started PEP in 2004, when she was 27. She said she left a $200,000-a-year job in private equity when her Christian faith led her to embark on a life of service.

Fifty-seven of the program’s graduates have begun their own businesses. These range from painting and automotive repair to catering; 32 of the 57 businesses are still operating. Many in the corrections business are wary of entrepreneurship programs, says Deborah Mukamal, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Entrepreneurs must thrive in unstructured environments, and many ex-offenders do better with more structure, she says. Failure rates among new companies are high. Still, Mukamal commends PEP and similar programs, like the Coffee Creek Prison Project in Wilsonville, Or., and the Workshop in Business Opportunities in New York, which offers a course to introduce inmates to the basic concepts of owning a business. “These are new, bold ideas,” she says, “and there are too many people going into prison and coming home not to try new ideas.”

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