Prison program helps inmates improve lives, stay out of jail

Prison is the last place most people would expect Neeley School of Business graduates to end up, but it is exactly where Andrew Kramer, a 2007 graduate of the Neeley MBA program, wanted to be.

Kramer works as a grant writer for the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, which aims to help prison inmates change their lives for the better through education and a passion for entrepreneurship.

“Our mission isn’t to make drug dealers better drug dealers,” Kramer said. “The guys we select are people who have demonstrated a genuine commitment to lead a transformed life.”

Inmates apply to the PEP by completing a 23-page application, taking four tests and interviewing. The program usually selects about 20 percent of applicants, Kramer said.

Gami Jasso, who graduated from the PEP in March 2007, said he spent 15 years in prison for gang activity and murder but is now a changed man.

“In 2001, I gave my life to Christ and chose to live a righteous life,” Jasso said. “Although I was committed to change before participating in the PEP, I think that without it I would not have been able to stand against the temptations the world has.”

Jasso said one of his biggest fears before participating in the program was that he would return to criminal behavior.

“Without the PEP, I think I would have gone back to my old lifestyle and still be in gangs and have no job,” Jasso said.

Jasso now works in case management for PEP, helping participants re-enter society.

According to the PEP Web site, the recidivism rate, the percentage of formerly incarcerated individuals who return to prison, is less than 5 percent for PEP participants, as compared with the national recidivism rate of 51.8 percent, according to a 1994 study released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The 1994 study is the most recent analysis of national recidivism rates.

The PEP transforms the lives of its participants, said Mark Jones, a warden at the Hamilton Unit, a pre-release facility for parole-bound inmates where the PEP started.

“It makes them stronger for society at their release,” Jones said.

The PEP uses three initiatives to help inmates become productive members of society: the Business Plan Competition, re-entry services and business development services.

The Business Plan Competition is a four-month class in which participants spend 18 to 20 hours in class per week and have several hours of homework.

“We whittle down a class from about 80 to 40 people because we find out these guys have gang affiliations still, and aren’t willing to do the work required of them or have anger problems,” Kramer said.

Additionally, the BPC holds seminars and brings in executives and MBA students to provide positive role models.

“The executives we work with come into prison to provide good feedback,” Kramer said. “[They] give advice on how to make sales pitches, how to give presentations and why a theoretical investor should invest in their business.”

At the end of the program, participants present a 10-page business plan they developed during the BPC to a nationwide panel of executives to evaluate.

“These business plans we help them develop are legitimate,” Kramer said. “They are good for investment bankers.”

After participants graduate from the BPC and are released from prison, the PEP helps them find housing, jobs, clothing and medical care.

“We absolutely do not want them to fail,” Kramer said. “We do anything to make sure they are not going to fail.”

The PEP has strong relationships with employers. About 98 percent of participants have jobs within the first month.

The final step of the PEP program is entrepreneurship school. E-School provides participants with weekly classes, a network of executives, advisers and mentors.

More than 325 participants have graduated from the BPC, and E-School graduates have started 41 new businesses since PEP was founded by venture capitalist Catherine Rohr in 2004, Kramer said.

Kramer said he first heard about the PEP while working at the Neeley School’s Graduate Career Service Center.

“The PEP reached out to my boss … and asked if she knew any MBAs who were interested,” Kramer said. “She said she did and ran into my office and said, ‘Andrew, I have found the perfect job for you.’ And she was right.”

Kramer said he always knew he wanted to work for a nonprofit organization, but it was a difficult sector to get into.

“You need to want to be in it because its really confusing and how competitive it is to get into,” Kramer said.

Kramer said he works about 10 hours per day, but the hours do not bother him.

“It’s not the hours I work.” Kramer said. “It’s the things I do.”

Kramer said the most rewarding part of his job is knowing he is making a difference in PEP participants’ lives.

“I know that I can have an impact and establish a relationship that makes [participants] not commit crimes in the future,” Kramer said.

Jasso agreed that PEP and the people who worked for it transformed his life.

“PEP gave me the vision to succeed and re-enter society,” Jasso said. “I can show society that I am a changed man and that I can make it.”