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Starting A Business, With Those Skills Learned In Texas Prison

Posted by: Colleen Debaise on October 23, 2008

Now here’s something you don’t see everyday: A program that helps convicted felons turn the talents they’ve learned in prison – such as making and peddling “hootch” (bootleg liquor) and re-selling smuggled cigarettes – into entrepreneurial skills they can use outside the Big House.

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program does just that, working with former dope dealers and gang leaders at the Cleveland Correctional Center, a private facility in Cleveland, Texas, to redirect their skill set, as it were, so they can run legitimate enterprises upon release. Only prisoners nearing parole are eligible for the program. Those who get accepted spend 17 hours a week in the classroom (plus homework) and get mentoring from local business leaders.

The program is the brainchild of Catherine Rohr, who quit a Wall Street job with a six-figure salary to teach convicts (mostly violent criminals) about making an honest buck. Influential convicted felons, she says, are America’s most overlooked talent pool. View a recent lecture by Rohr here.

Rohr launched the non-profit program four years ago, thanks to a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City, Mo., nonprofit that supports entrepreneurship. Kauffman likes to fund innovative programs “where no man has gone before,” says Lesa Mitchell, a vice president at the foundation.

The prison program “literally does show that people from all walks of life can be an entrepreneur,” she adds. “You don’t have to go to Stanford or MIT. If people coming out of prison can do that, you can too.”

Some 43 of the program’s 370 graduates have started their own businesses (including a print shop, a leather-goods company and a music-promotion business). More than 97% are employed at an hourly wage of about $10.50 within four weeks of release, and the recidivism rate is less than 5%, according to the program.

Reader Comments

Troy Halsey

October 26, 2008 1:13 AM

I think this is a very good idea, because I am a convicted felon also and have my own business. I think when you become a felon alot of job opportunity is lost. People just don't hire people with criminal records. I think that's a big reason the return rate is so high for prisoners being released and returning to prison. Thank You for making a real change, not everyone will benefit but it's some that will be reformed because of your work and dedication Thank you once again.

Sarah Smith

October 26, 2008 10:55 PM

Wow..what an interesting article. I think it's great to try to rehab inmates to make them become productive citizens. We all can learn a new business if we put our minds to it.

I was reading a blog the other day about Mom's letting it shine when they begin their at home buiness. Here is the link:

I hope it is helpful and inspiring.
Sarah Smith

betsy carroll

December 27, 2008 9:40 AM

good for you!! i think this is wonderful. i am a convicted felon with a bachelor's degree who cannot get a job making more than 8.00 or 8.50 per hour. that's when i can find a job at all. no one will hire a person with a felony on their record. they won't even talk to you.

we are in a country that recently surpassed china as having more people incarcerated than in any other country. the people being released need to be able to work in order to reduce recidivism. i can see why alot of ex-convicts return at least to a partial life of crime and return to prison.

they cannot support themselves and their families with absolutely 0 job opportunities.

kirk beall

October 22, 2009 4:40 PM

Education,training I think we could use more of these programs.

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What's it like to run your own company today? Entrepreneurs face multiple hurdles new and old, from raising capital and managing employees to keeping up with technology and competing in a global marketplace. In this blog, the Small Business channel's John Tozzi and Nick Leiber discuss the news, trends, and ideas that matter to small business owners. Follow them on Twitter @newentrepreneur.

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