Alcon Volunteers Help Prepare Inmates for Post-release Employment
The Prison Entrepreneurship Program restores hope to the lives of inmates and provides the opportunity for them.
Aug 31, 2017
With more than 2.3 million people currently incarcerated*, prisons in the United States are at 99% capacity and bursting at the seams. This prison overcrowding severely worsens the conditions in which inmates live and limits rehabilitation opportunities through educational or vocational training programs. A recidivism, or return-to-prison, rate of almost 50%, contributes to ongoing prison overcrowding. If the prison population is so large, why aren’t we taking a greater interest in the pre-release rehabilitation, recidivism, and well-being of inmates?
Texas-based Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), established in 2004, has taken action to confront this problem by providing a program with opportunities such as a leadership academy, business plan competitions, and project management classes to eligible male inmates in the Texas prison system. This program offers inmates the tools and mindset to turn their lives around and succeed upon their release. One hundred percent of PEP graduates are employed within 90 days of their release from prison, and the program has a 7% three-year recidivism rate. PEP offers innovative programs to help form connections between the inmates and program volunteer executives, business people, and MBA students. They hope for these connections and programs to transform broken lives, restore hope, and reduce recidivism.
Alcon associate, Keith Bird, VP, Engineering, has volunteered with PEP for four years. Based on his support and enthusiasm for the program, not only have several Alcon colleagues become PEP volunteers, but PEP also became a partner organization for Community Partnership Day 2017. The project attracted 15 volunteers who spent a day at Sanders “Sandy” Estes Unit prison in Venus, Texas, working with 86 inmates. The day began with an icebreaker to help everyone get to know one another. The participants started with “Step to the Line,” where a line of tape was placed on the floor to divide the room. Alcon volunteers stood on one side of the tape, while the inmates stood on the other, the two groups facing each other. The participants approached the line on the floor if they had personally experienced certain things, such as: being born out of the country, growing up in a broken home, graduating high school, or struggling with alcohol and drug abuse. In the end, almost every Alcon volunteer had come face-to-face with an inmate at the line. As the two groups of people faced each other, it was a surreal and humbling experience for the participants to see how they weren’t as different as it may have appeared on the surface.
Following the icebreaker activity, the inmates performed a skit acting out prison life, as well as their experience with getting moved into the PEP program and how that changed their life. Next, an inmate bravely told his testimony: his upbringing, the wrong paths he chose that led to prison, and how his prison experience led him to where he is now. Keith Bird said, “I saw a few tears in the crowd during this testimony.” This inmate’s bravery and vulnerability touched many hearts and created a powerful start to the day.
One of the core elements of the PEP program is the business plan competition. This opportunity allows PEP participants to develop ideas and prepare business plans to be presented in an environment much like the TV show, “Shark Tank.” This show gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to present their business plans to a panel of large investors who might then choose to invest in their product or company. At CPD, inmates’ business ideas included lawn care, restaurants, welding, entertainment, fitness, and screen-printing. The inmates worked with Alcon volunteers to practice and perfect their pitches and business plans, which consists of a 12-15 minute pitch followed by an “ask” for financing from the investors. Practicing with the Alcon volunteers gave the inmates experience that helped prepare them to pitch their plans to actual investors. Through this competition, PEP gives inmates experience and opportunities that will help them create a more financially stable life for themselves after release.
Associate Isha James, Sr. Contracts Management Specialist, said listening to the testimony, talking with inmates, and helping with business pitches was one of the most rewarding experiences she has ever had. The day after CPD, Isha signed up to go back to PEP for the remainder of the year, and she’s since become certified by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to volunteer for the next two years. CPD volunteer Michele Gagne, Project Management Office, Development IT, realized during her volunteer experience that inmates could benefit from having project management skills. Michele has been back to Sanders “Sandy” Estes Unit Prison two times to teach classes through the Project Management Institution, helping more than 120 inmates gain additional skills that can help them successfully launch a business or excel in a job after their release.
The Prison Entrepreneurship Program restores hope to the lives of inmates and provides the opportunity for them to turn their lives around once they are released. On Community Partnership Day, PEP not only helped the inmates, but touched the lives of the Alcon volunteers and proved to be an all-around rewarding experience for everyone involved. To learn more about PEP, visit their website.
* according to the Prison Policy Initiative Organization