This Texas jail program is enhancing recidivism charges

Half of all people released from US prisons return within three years. That’s a sobering statistic, but it’s one that can improve with help, in part, by a program pioneered right here in Texas.

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program, which operates in prisons outside of Dallas and Houston, is a highly interactive curriculum taught largely by business executives.

PEP includes a business plan curriculum joined to an intensive character assessment and development program, which helps “each individual to identify and remove the character traits and behaviors that stand in the way of positive life transformation.”

More than 500 businesses have been launched by PEP graduates.

More importantly, PEP boasts an exceptionally low recidivism rate: 8.3% after three years.

Other results are equally impressive: 100% of PEP graduates are employed within 90 days of release from prison, with an average 20 days “from prison to paycheck.” In the general prison population, there is an approximately 50% unemployment rate 12 months after release. By contrast, nearly 100% of PEP graduates are still employed. PEP’s success has led other states to request help in establishing similar programs.

What’s behind this success? As Baylor’s Byron Johnson and other researchers at the Baylor Institute for the Study of Religion have shown, traditional criminal justice aims to curb anti-social behavior rather than inculcate pro-social behavior. It aims at the safety and security of the wider society rather than the rehabilitation of the criminal. There is no reason we cannot do both. Indeed, we may need to focus on rehabilitation and preparation for release from prison in order to safeguard safety and curb anti-social behavior. Prison sentences often reinforce patterns of criminal behavior and thus contribute directly to recidivism.

As Johnson has demonstrated, the return on investment is high: no taxpayer money supporting future incarceration, an increase in paid child support, and — because PEP alumni are gainfully employed — no reliance on government assistance.

Among the many features of the PEP, three stand out: proximity, comprehensive programming and accountability.

PEP embodies the principle that Bryan Stevenson calls proximity. Stevenson is founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative whose work was featured in the popular book and film Just Mercy. This is not a program designed by government agencies in DC and implemented by bureaucrats. It’s designed to work closely with inmates, involving regular interaction. In this way, the program establishes and builds upon personal relationships. Its intensive case study model is able to adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of each participant. In fact, nearly 75% of the staff were formerly incarcerated, including the current CEO, Bryan Kelley.

The interaction with the incarcerated is also sustained and comprehensive. It extends beyond the time of incarceration, particularly in the vulnerable period immediately after release. Beyond the obstacles to employment and the lack of skills, there is the question of the type of community the newly released will enter. Former inmates typically rejoin the community they occupied before prison, which presents high risk for a repeat of criminal behavior. PEP works early and often with family members of participants to prepare for reintegration. And because newly released people and their families face challenges of food insecurity, PEP is partnering with the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty.

PEP involves a high level of accountability. It is not offering handouts. Regular meetings inculcate habits of mutual respect and response to expectations. As one former participant put it, “I knew that I wanted to change, but I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to be. Throughout this experience in PEP I’ve been blown away by the people involved and the process of change. We are asked to hold each other accountable and work on our character flaws which only made me stronger and more confident.”

At a time when resources are tight and concern over violence and criminal behavior is growing, PEP delivers a high-level return on investment even as it inspires hope and transforms the lives of individuals and families.

Thomas S. Hibbs is a philosophy professor at Baylor University. He wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.

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