In April 2018, Bryan Kelley became chief executive officer of a Texas-based nonprofit, called Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), that helps incarcerated people reenter society more easily once they’re released from prison.
Kelley, 52, was not a successful CEO looking for new challenges outside the business world; nor did he have rich experience with NGOs. He’s a convicted murderer who spent nearly half his life behind bars and was released from prison only four years ago.
It wasn’t too long ago, as he admitted, that he had never Googled anything, sent an email, used a cell phone, nor seen a debit card. “Prior to prison,” he told The Crime Report. “I was a terrible employee.”
Now, for those joining the program he leads, he’s an example of why a term behind bars doesn’t have to mean a lifelong sentence to invisibility and failure in civilian society.
Born in Ottawa, Kansas, Kelly’s early life was clouded by financial struggles and alcoholism within his family. His first of many arrests happened in his early 20’s, for unpaid traffic tickets. In 1992, Bryan was convicted of the murder of his cocaine dealer in what he calls “a drug deal gone horribly wrong.”
He was sentenced to life in Texas prisons and was first eligible for parole after just six years due to the state’s regulation at the time. However, the parole board wouldn’t consider him for release until he completed at least 20 years inside. In his 13th appearance in front of the board, he finally made parole—but turned it down.
Instead he asked for a transfer to another prison so he could participate in PEP.
“I knew what a unique experience it was going to be because I had served as peer educator for the program years before,” he said. “Going through PEP was worth another year in prison.”
Many people fail at the difficult task of remaking lives after prison.
According to various measures of recidivism rates, around two-thirds of all formerly incarcerated people are rearrested within three years of their release. Texas recidivism rates are fairly low compared to other states, but they are stable nonetheless: according to the latest Statewide Criminal and Juvenile Justice Recidivism and Revocation Rates report from January 2017, around 62 percent of the adults and juveniles who were released between 2011-2013 from a state jail were rearrested within three years, and 46 percent of those who were released from prison were rearrested.
These numbers aren’t mere statistics.
They represent lives and a lot of money. It’s well known that other than the moral problem embedded in such high incarceration rates, the issue is a financial one as well. You hear about bi-partisan efforts to address the problem, both at state and federal level. But what is really being done? What programs really work?
Last April, around the time Kelly began his new job, a Koch Brothers initiative for prison reform called Safe Streets and Second Chances launched a pilot project aimed at giving inmates the counseling and education they need before getting out of prison. The initiative has White House support, through the Office of American Innovation, headed by President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
But the program’s administrators might borrow a page from PEP.
The program is highly selective. Recruiters focus on men and women who are within three years of their release, whether on parole or a full discharge. They can’t be sex offenders due to the tough restrictions imposed after their imprisonment, which make it hard for them to fit in the program. Those who show interest get application forms, which by themselves constitute a tough screening point.
Eighteen pages of questions cover the candidate’s full life history and beyond, including questions about the meaning behind their tattoos, gang history, childhood, sexual orientation and faith. Getting through it can have a dampening effect on an incarcerated person’s motivation to succeed.
And that’s just the first stage.
The inside program takes nine months, “just like the time it takes to create a child,” says Kristie Wisniewski, PEP’s chief of staff. It has a few phases, from re-building the person’s character to creating a business plan. As part of the program, businessmen and other volunteers visit the prisons and meet the participants to share their experience and give professional tips.
Last December, PEP accepted its first class of women in the Lockhart Unit, 40 minutes ride south of Austin. This first class was shorter than the men’s program, as the team of PEP still works on adapting the character development phase to women, so it included only the hardcore business parts.
The second class is scheduled to begin in July, and by then it will include the full curriculum.
PEP’s expansion to the women’s population couldn’t come at a better time.
According to data presented by the Prison Policy Initiative in the Beyond the Bars conference held in March at Columbia University, the incarcerated women population is growing. In some states, the women population grew sharply enough to offset the reduction in the number of incarcerated men.
Since 1978, the nationwide women’s state prison population grew 834 percent—more than double the pace of growth among men. In Texas while the men’s prison population declined by 6,000 between 2009 and 2015, the number of incarcerated women grew by 1,100.
On a warm cloudy Friday on the second week of March, Lockhart hosted one of its first mock interview events, one of the program’s highlights, with the 33 female graduates of the first class of PEP. About 50 volunteers arrived to help the women prepare for their job interviews outside. They were excited to see us and eager to impress.
Bert Smith, PEP’s CEO emeritus, said that so far they have found the women have more common characteristics with their male colleagues than differences. Due to the experience some of the women already have in business, however, he believes more of them will succeed outside.
We started our visit in the families’ visiting room, where Smith and the executive relations manager in Houston, Charles Hearne, briefed us on what’s expected. The room is wide and its walls are colorful, decorated with paintings of Disney characters, Sesame Street and Minions.
When we entered the prison itself it felt more like going back to elementary school than prison. Every other door led to a classroom in which a lesson was taught, including math, reading and writing and other things many of us consider basic. Empowerment slogans decorate the walls and the uniforms are colorful: pink for the kitchen workers, yellow for those who work outside, and the women in orange – not really the “new black”– are maintenance workers.
The hall where we conducted the interviews didn’t have tables— only chairs— so it provided a less formal and less intimidating atmosphere. In the corner of the room was an entrance to a small, completely new computer room and next to it a small storage space for musical instruments that are used in special occasions.
The women were charming and impressive. Though many were victims of abusive spouses, addiction or troubled parents, they all seemed to glow with pride and enthusiasm about the future.
Michelle, a mother of two in her early forties, told me about trying to stay sane in a place that can easily seem like to a Cuckoo’s Nest: “some girls let the time do them. I don’t want to become a product of my environment.”
Michelle was sentenced to five years for stealing from her employer and in the time of the event was going through her review period toward her parole hearing. She told me she does crosswords and logic riddles to keep her gray cells in shape.
Her struggle to maintain the essence of herself is a perfect representation to the difference between an incarcerated woman and an inmate. This is not merely a linguistic distinction; it’s a matter of character.
Kelley, for his part, continues to rebuild his life as a normal member of society. In a few months he will marry his fiancé, a certified public accountant, whom he met at church. In one of their first dates near a local lake she asked him if he feels comfortable telling her about his past.
He took out a little smooth stone he held in his pocket from their walk along the waterfront. He reached out to her hand and put the stone in it, saying: “every time I tell my story, it’s like I’m carrying around a heavy burden and I’m giving a little piece of it away. My burden is not as heavy as it was.”
That is where their relationship started.
Anat Kamm is a 2018 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Justice Reporting fellow. This article was produced for her fellowship reporting. Kamm spent over two years in an Israeli prison. Released on parole, she reports that she “was lucky enough to have an easy landing, thanks to my family who had both the means and the will to help me reintegrate into society.” She welcomes comments from readers.