Transformation and Opportunity: My Prison Experience

Transformation and Opportunity: My Prison Experience


Toiya Smith


Nearly seven million people are in prison or on parolein the United States. Two-thirds of inmates released from prison remain unemployed after a year, and another two-thirdswill be re-arrested within three years of release. With numbers like these, it is clear that the collateral consequences of incarceration – such as difficulty finding employment after release from prison – deserve attention, action, and solutions.


After I completed three prison tours in Nebraska, I decided to visit a prison in my home state of Texas to learn how correctional facilities are addressing recidivism. There are about 223,000 peopleincarcerated in Texas, and approximately 378, 514 people on parole. Reform is a worthy and necessary goal, one that is being pursued in Texas. 


Because of my interest in entrepreneurship, naturally I was drawn to the Prison Entrepreneurship Program(PEP). I met the President of PEP, Bryan Kelley, on April 14, 2019 at a State of Opportunity in America Summit sponsored by the Center for Advancing Opportunityin Washington, DC. He delivered a keynote speech and empowered me through his story of personal transformation from being a participant in PEP to now being its CEO. After hearing about this program, I decided to visit a prison to see it in action. 


PEP uses its ten driving values to create opportunity and a “fresh start” for reformed inmates who thrive on challenge and accountability: “fresh start” outlook, servant leader mentality, love, innovation, accountability, integrity, execution, fun, excellence, and wise stewardship. 


PEP currently provides their six-month entrepreneurial training programs in three Texas prisons. PEP offers multiple volunteer opportunities such as think tanks, pitch days, venture capital panels, mock interviews and more. Because of the negative social stigma associated with prisons and people in them that is constantly pushed out in media, PEP serves as a model of what a program can do to change the lives of incarcerated men and women while inside and outside of prison.


PEP has helped nearly 1,400 inmates learn character and business skills in Houston and Dallas. An impressive 100% of PEP graduates are employed within 90 days of their release, and more than 90% are still employed after a year. PEP’s recidivism rate is just seven percent compared to the statewide rate of 21.4%.PEP is focused on transforming people, families, and communities through personal experiences – not just statistics and policy. 


I took the liberty of inviting one of my dearest friends to visit PEP with me. I was intentional about choosing someone who did not have a vested interest in criminal justice reform or entrepreneurship. Politics or ideologies don’t matter when you enter into a servant space like PEP. 


Upon entering into the San Estes Unit in Venus, Texas we were asked to remove all belongings from our pockets and take our shoes off of our feet in order to “be processed”— standard practice for entering any carceral facility. For someone who has never been inside a prison before just the process of entering can be terrifying and nerve racking. 


What sticks with me (no matter how many different facilities I go to) is the distinct “clank” of the bars locking once you are officially inside. This is where the experience starts and you realize truly — I’m in prison. 


As soon as this reality sets in, PEP begins their transformational magic. Before you have the opportunity to channel stereotypes, fears, or pre-determined judgements, lights begin flickering, people are cheering, and all you can see are smiling faces and eager hands awaiting a high five. Suddenly, all the nervousness and uncertainty you may have had before has vanished. 


In closing, there are not many people who would volunteer to spend the day in prison. However, there is something special about PEP’s approach to the unconventional. Where you think you will find scary and violent individuals you are met with passionate and dedicated men – franklyexhibiting these characteristics more so than most individuals I’ve encountered across contexts.PEP teaches us a lesson that we all learn eventually: never judge a book by its cover.

Toiya Smith is an undergraduate student at Dillard University and an intern at the Center for Advancing Opportunity