For a volunteer with the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, the first visit to the Cleveland Correctional Center can be daunting. There's the airport security-style check point. A long walk down a concrete corridor. And then …
No, it's not a riot. More than 70 inmates hold up their arms to form a tunnel that empties into a large event hall. Many reach out to high-five the volunteers as they pass through. The men are serving time for everything from drug dealing to murder. All are smiling.
Al Massey is executive relations manager for PEP.
"Yeah, what we do is, everybody comes through the Tunnel of Love, and it shows their love for the people that are coming into the unit."
The program offers inmates a way to turn their lives around by teaching them entrepreneurship. Roughly 10,000 Texas inmates are eligible, but only a hundred or so are admitted to each six-month class. Participants put in roughly 1,000 hours of class time. Topics range from business etiquette to bootstrap financing.
But coursework is only about half the program. The other half is character assessment. Inmates have to point out the flaws in each other's character, constantly. Martin Zapata is a recent PEP graduate.
"I was very, I guess, manipulative, and I really didn't know it because I'd been doing it so long. And in PEP, we believe in stabbing you in the chest, not in the back. So when I got a lot of that I was like, ‘Man, you're crazy. I don't believe you.' And then I'd hear it from this brother, and this one, and this one, and this one. I said, ‘Okay, okay, now it's time for me to stop and think about it, and really take a look at myself. Am I really doing this?'"
In fact, the character assessment may cause more participants to drop out than the course load. But it's also viewed as critical if the inmates aren't going to wind up back in the system after their release.
"What we don't want to do is teach a drug dealer to be a better, smarter drug dealer."
Jeremy Gregg is PEP's chief development officer.
"We will not invest our very limited resources into a person who won't even invest in himself. You're going to have to transform who you are in front of us. But you have to do it. We can't make you do it. So, one of the things we tell our guys is that it's really up to them, but they're not alone."
For those who make the final cut, the rewards can be immense. The rate of recidivism among PEP graduates is less than 5%.