After weeks of feeling I had nothing interesting to say/blog about, I suddenly have several stories that I would like to comment on and invite others to respond to. I’ll start with the one that raises the most questions for me, and I’ll try to get to the others in the near future.
I first read about the Prison Entrepreunership Program in a feature story in Miller-McCune earlier this year. Here’s how author Vince Beiser described the program and its results in the Miller-McCune article:
So far, the program has put 440 male inmates through four months of classes in which volunteer executives and MBA students from the likes of Harvard and Stanford help them develop business plans. Applicants are carefully screened. They must be within a year of their release, renounce gang affiliations and submit to several tests and interviews. Only about 1 in 7 is accepted. Nearly half are kicked out over the course of the program for infractions ranging from cheating on tests to maintaining gang ties.
PEP also provides crucial support after release. Staff members pick up each graduate at the prison gate and help him find a place to stay. At the organization’s headquarters in a north Houston office park, program grads choose suits from a room full of donated business clothes. Post-release classes and mentoring opportunities are available. Rohr and her husband even take the men out to the beach or the movies sometimes and organize holiday parties for them.
By the organization’s count, almost all of the program’s graduates have found jobs after their release, and 57 have started their own businesses, ranging from landscaping to dog training. Just shy of 9 percent have so far wound up behind bars again — an impressive statistic in a state with a recidivism rate of around 30 percent. “No question, it’s an innovative model with a lot of promise,” says Amy Solomon, a researcher at the Urban Institute specializing in prisoner re-entry issues.
That record is bringing the program major support. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice gave it an award for being the state’s “most innovative” volunteer program in 2007. The group’s budget, donated by individuals and foundations (including a recent $750,000 grant from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation), swelled from nothing in 2004 to $2.5 million last year. PEP now has 26 employees, many of them program graduates.
And now, this disappointing news reported in the Austin American-Statesman: Catherine Rohr, the PEP program’s founder and driving force, abruptly resigned after she was banned from entering state prisons for having “improper relationships” with four graduates of her program. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has banned Rohr from prisons and from working with parolees, with a spokeswoman stating: “Our policies are clear: Volunteers cannot have personal or intimate relationships with current or former offenders.”
There are plenty of ethical and moral issues here, and Rohr made poor decisions that may now threaten her entire program. She certainly seems to have shattered her own life. But what bothers me most is the punitive action of the state. I know other states have similar policies, but it seems to me a rather long reach for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to banish Rohr so completely for having inappropriate relationships with men who are no longer under their supervision. It just doesn’t seem like it should be the state’s business at that point. I know the focus isn’t on the men – it’s on Rohr in her role as a volunteer with the agency – but I think the banishment sends a clear message about the absolute lack of confidence the agency has in the rehabilitation of the men released from its own institutions.
I hate stories like these. As a female teacher/volunteer in state prisons, I feel like I’m always forced to deal with an extra layer of suspicion that my male counterparts are somehow exempt from (at least in male prisons). It’s frustrating when stories like this one add fuel to those generalized suspicions. Even worse, though, I suspect the loss of Rohr will do a tremendous amount of damage to the PEP program. Hopefully, the program has enough momentum and support to keep it going under new leadership. It seems to be making a difference for a population that needs all the hope and skills training it can get.