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Starting A Business, With Those Skills Learned In Texas Prison

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.

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