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Program helps Texas felons start over

September 17, 2018

Bryan Kelley wanted to change his life so much that he asked to stay in prison after he had been granted parole so that he could go through the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.

Four years later, he is now the CEO of the nonprofit that helps convicted felons turn their lives around through building character, gaining employment and starting businesses once they are released.

Kelley had served about 20 years for murder in what he called a drug deal gone bad but had heard good things about the program and asked the parole commissioner if he could serve longer in order to complete the program.

“Sounds crazy, right? But just think about it: I had already completed 20 years. Nine months is a drop in the bucket at that point.” Kelley said. “And I knew already what solid training I was going to receive from PEP. What’s more, I knew the incredible network I was going to receive from PEP. You don’t get out of graduate school with this type of network, let alone prison. It was a no-brainer.”

Soon after Kelley’s release, PEP hired him as a transitional coordinator coaching other released PEP graduates, and over the past four years, he was promoted. He became the CEO in April.

Founded in 2004, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program is nine-month program where prisoners fill out a 10-page questionnaire and interview to apply.

PEP was started by a venture capitalist who visited a prison and was surprised with the people she encountered and their interest in what she had to say about business, Kelley said.

“In talking to them, she realized from their survival on the streets that they know a lot about business,” Kelley said. “They know about supply chains and risk management and profit margins and collections and even marketing, so it just struck her that they’re natural business men.”

In the first three months of the program, participants work with executive volunteers on enriching their character through activities like taking an in-depth personal inventory and writing their own obituary — how it would read then and what they would want it to read. In the second phase, they create and present business plans, read books like “Good to Great” and “Rich Dad Poor Dad” and learn how to present themselves through Toastmasters.

Today, according to Kelley, PEP graduates have about a 7.5 percent recidivism rate, or rate of returning to criminal behavior, as compared to the national rate of about 60 percent. He said nationally, about two-thirds of those who are released go back to prison within three years.

Over the past 14 years, about 18 percent of PEP graduates have started around 360 businesses, and Kelley said five of the businesses have annual revenues of more than $1 million each. The business training has helped other graduates to land jobs. Kelley said currently, released PEP participants typically find employment within about 17 days at an average rate of $12.60 an hour.

He said this year, the program hopes to work with about 1,200 prisoners and estimated that of those, about 500 or 600 will graduate, complete with a cap and gown ceremony because many never graduated high school.

A pilot program for women started last year, and Kelley said it went well, producing 34 graduates. A second women’s class is currently underway.

Geoff Lanceley has worked with PEP as an executive volunteer for about three years and said he enjoys encouraging the participants and personally benefits from serving them.

“The main thing is by showing up with no skin in the game other than wanting to help them, they know that someone believes in them. And when you keep coming back, they’re incredibly grateful because they know that you trust and believe they can make this radical change,” Lanceley said. ’It’s a massive two-way street. All the people that volunteer — including me — I really get more out of it than I put in because these guys are so grateful.”

He said following Hurricane Harvey, the participants he worked with at the prison in Cleveland gave from the money their families had sent them to use at the commissary to help those affected by the storm. On the outside, PEP graduates volunteered their time to help people move from their flooded homes, Lanceley said.

“It really tells you their attitude is completely changed. They’re there to serve,” he said.

PEP currently has four programs at prisons in Texas, including the one for women, and Kelley said he has been in touch with other states that want to expand the program there. He anticipates the expansion will begin sometime next year.

The Second Annual Hall of Fame Gala on Sunday, Oct. 28, at the Bayou City Event Center will shine light on the work that Prison Entrepreneurship Program is doing as well as raise funds.

“We just want to bring awareness to the community of what we’re doing but also look at that as a fundraiser to kind or rev our engine a little bit,” Kelley said. “It’s also a great way to pull our volunteers in with some of our released participants and really showcase the men that have been through our program and how incredible they really are.”

tracy.maness@hcnonline.com

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