Criminal Justice News and VIews

Interesting items related to criminal justice

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Cheaper than 2nd prison term

The New York Times

Wouldn't it be even better if once the newly released had his/her company up and running that other newly released felons were given a job at the company?

They do not allow sexual predators into the program which is laudable but don't drug dealers prey on children as well (legally until the age of majority one is a child)?

July 1, 2006

Thinking Outside the Cellblock: Inmates With Ambition

BRYAN, Tex., June 27 — Bill Sterling was big in import-export, the C.E.O. of his own multimillion-dollar business with a loyal customer base and high product demand that earned him 90 percent profit margins and 19 years in the Texas prison system.

But with his drug-trafficking career long behind him and his release approaching, Mr. Sterling, 58, ended Tuesday night on the basketball court behind the barbed-wire fences of the minimum-security Hamilton Unit here buttonholing visiting business titans and investors about his latest venture.

"I'd like to standardize the making of 'No Child Left Behind' tests," he said.

Mr. Sterling and several hundred fellow inmates in white short-sleeve uniforms were competing for a cherished slot in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, a two-year-old, nonprofit effort that capitalizes on their penchant for creative self-employment (and meager job prospects on the outside).

The Texas program, which is expected to expand soon to California, was started by Catherine Rohr, a young venture capitalist inspired by the prison ministry of the former Watergate conspirator Charles W. Colson. It offers an intense four-month business curriculum, matching participants with volunteers from the corporate world, some of whom have had their own scrapes with the law.

"Many of you were dope dealers, we give you credit for that — you're already entrepreneurs," Ms. Rohr, 29, said in welcoming candidates for the fourth and latest class of up to 100 students.

The class is scheduled to begin Sunday night with an English test based on The Associated Press stylebook. To be chosen for it, inmates cannot be sex offenders and must fill out a 23-page questionnaire. They must also offer credible business aspirations and show evidence of "heart."

Among the graduates with testimonials was Kenneth Broderick, 47, who said he got out in November after 16½ years and is now the proud owner of a shipping brokerage, Resource Freight Logistics.

"Today's a gift," Mr. Broderick said, beaming. "That's why they call it the present."

Since the program began in 2004 at another Texas prison before settling in at this prerelease facility of 1,200 men near Texas A&M University and about 100 miles northwest of Houston, 165 inmates have graduated. Only four have been sent back to prison — a far better percentage than the usual 69 percent recidivist rate, Ms. Rohr said. They get help buying business attire, finding loans, housing and medical care, and consulting with business professionals.

"I think of it as God's work," said Ms. Rohr, who gave up a lucrative career as a private equity investor in California and New York before moving to Houston with her husband, a lawyer. (The night they arrived, their van was broken into and many of their belongings stolen, an event Ms. Rohr shrugs off.)

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (, which is based in Houston, raised $342,000 in donations last year and hopes for $1.5 million this year. It got a boost here Tuesday night when one executive pledged a $50,000 contribution. About 600 executives have signed up to volunteer their services.

It is a good return on investment, said Ms. Rohr. It costs $3,700 a year to put an inmate through the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, and $22,000 to keep him in prison.

Cheering on former cellmates was Patric Weaver, 33, who got out last month after 38 months behind bars. "I was a National Merit Scholar," Mr. Weaver said. "I was also an interstate drug trafficker."

"The penitentiary saved me," he said, crediting the entrepreneurship program with helping him start his Houston business, StrongArm Canine, which keeps guard dogs on their toes by testing them with simulated break-ins and assaults. "We're essentially live bait," he said. "I wear a bite suit."

A graduate of the first class, Brent Taylor, 23, had done 18 months for robbery, and said he was now earning $120,000 a year selling used vehicles. "Everybody here has an 'X' on their back — but you can do it," Mr. Taylor said.

After serving six years in prison for distribution and possession of cocaine, Lafayette Moore, 52, said he was building home gyms in customers' spare rooms with the motto: "Why drive to the gym if you can work out in your own personal fitness room?"

Among the two dozen executives and M.B.A.'s who signed up to meet with the inmates was Dan Rouse, owner of a large heavy-equipment leasing company in Dallas, who confessed a personal interest. "I have a 23-year-old at home who's a recovering crack addict," Mr. Rouse said. "We have to stop the vicious cycle of drugs eating our children."

Chuck May, owner of a Dallas consulting firm, said his daughter had repeatedly spent time in prison for drugs. "I know what it means," Mr. May told the inmates. But he said he had recently shared the stage with the billionaire investor Boone Pickens, who readily admitted to many failures.

"If you haven't failed," Mr. May said, "you don't qualify."

Two of the executives who showed up on Tuesday night had spent time behind bars, Ms. Rohr said.

Some prisoners seemed close to tears, saying it was their first happy experience with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "Man, I get emotional; this is something I've never seen," said an inmate with 25 years behind bars who gave his name as Mr. Amarillo.

Mr. Sterling, the ex-drug dealer turned test maker, said the program sounded almost too good to be true.

"I'm thinking there's some kind of ulterior motive," he said. "Maybe I've been here too long."

Among the inmates who ended the evening crowding around the businessmen for advice, hoping the program would take them on, was Byron Maddox, 55, who said he was getting out of prison after 30 years and 5 months for murder and robbery.

Mr. Maddox said he was hoping to start a leather and furniture business with a highly placed partner. "God's a miracle worker," he said.