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Rohr Shares Passion for Prison Reform

Chapel Hill, N. C. — "I used to hate prisoners. I thought they should all just be buried," Catherine Rohr confessed to nearly 200 audience members from academia, business and the justice system gathered at UNC Oct. 5 to hear her speak.

Catherine RohrRohr, founder and chief executive officer of the model Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), explained the events that led to that belief — the murder of a good friend at age 14, the light sentences given the teen-aged murderers, the high cost of prisons — and the events that led her to visit prisons, meet offenders and start a national model prison reentry program to help them.

"These men were proven entrepreneurs," Rohr said. "All I could think was, 'What would happen if these men were equipped to do good and were given a real chance?'"

Rohr's public lecture at UNC was part of two-day visit to UNC arranged by PEP supporter Jane Murchison, a senior economics and history major and entrepreneurship minor in the College of Arts and Sciences. Rohr met with classes of students enrolled in the minor and participated in a roundtable discussion with leaders from state government and the nonprofit sector working on prison reentry solutions for North Carolina.

"I thought bringing Catherine Rohr here would be an amazing opportunity to see how ideals can be put into practice," Murchison said. "She is a person who is pursuing her passion, giving up a high-powered job on Wall Street to start this program. It is inspiring to see the impact PEP has on the lives of its participants and on everyone who comes in contact with the program."

The events were co-hosted by the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, which directs the Carolina Entrepreneurial Initiative (CEI), with the CEI, the minor, UNC's social entrepreneur-in-residence Micah Gilmer, Campus Y, Governor's Crime Commission and N.C. Department of Justice.

Redirecting the energy of ex-offenders

Rohr graduated from the University of California-Berkeley's Haas School of Business and headed to Wall Street, where she built a successful career as an investment banker. A visit to a Romanian orphanage moved her to rethink her way of life. "I began to think about ways I could give back, how I could change my life to follow the ways of Christ."

A year later, a friend involved in prison ministry challenged Rohr to join her on a trip to a Texas men's prison. Despite reservations, Rohr agreed.

Rohr did not find what she expected inside the prison. As she talked with inmates, many of whom were former gang members, she realized gangs were structured and run like businesses. She understood that these inmates had followed apprentice systems within their own life circumstances and that they were in fact good business people. They simply had never had an opportunity to use their skills for good.

During a second visit to the prison, this time with friends from the business world, Rohr convinced inmates that they could be successful. She spontaneously started a business plan competition to prove it. While the competition was a great success, Rohr realized that business plans weren't enough. "We needed post-release solutions if we were going to really help these men.

With her own money she started PEP, packed up her things and moved to Texas.

Character building is key

The PEP program operates in Dallas and Houston with a 22-person staff. It recruits men throughout Texas's prison system who have a strong work ethic, exhibit good entrepreneurial or leadership skills and who are ready for a personal transformation. They then go through a "boot camp" business course during which they are expected to drop "tough-guy" behaviors and bond with other participants.

-"At the end of the program, these men know they have really accomplished something," said Rohr. "The character-building aspect of PEP is every bit as important as the business courses."

Once released, PEP participants are picked up at the prison gate and provided housing, necessities and support. Some go back to school. Some join a job-mentoring program. PEP employees stay in contact and help the men stay occupied without drugs. After six months, they are encouraged to start their own companies since a criminal conviction is a major barrier to finding a job.

"The only way to grow and succeed is to be in community," said Rohr. "Outside prison is where these men are alone and PEP provides them with the community they need to succeed. The only reason not to succeed is if the individual simply wants to be a criminal."

One model for success

With 28,000 ex-offenders being released from North Carolina prisons each year and one in three of those returning to prison within three years, prisoner rehabilitation is a major social and economic challenge for North Carolina.

In September, N.C. Gov. Beverly Perdue appointed a 34-member StreetSafe Task Force to develop a plan to combat recidivism and reintegrate offenders safely into the community. Attorney General Roy Cooper and Department of Corrections Secretary Alvin Keller co-chair a broad-based group of civic, business and government leaders. Nearly 40 representatives convened at the Kenan Institute for a discussion about her model, moderated by Dr. James H. Johnson Jr., director of the institute's Urban Investment Strategies Center and an expert in social entrepreneurship and prison reentry strategies.

PEP provides a model for success. It has achieved remarkable results, including a return-to-prison rate of less than 10 percent and an employment rate of more than 80 percent within 30 days of release. More than 400 inmates have completed PEP and more than 60 business ventures have been created. They range from real estate to computer software to landscaping services.

Key to the program's success is its strong base of support from volunteers in the business world. Since the program's inception in 2004, Rohr has recruited more than 7,500 executives, entrepreneurs and MBAs from 30 business schools to work with and support PEP participants.

PEP graduate brings audience to its feet

Rohr concluded her talk by introducing 20-year-old Jason Wang, a PEP graduate and president of Wang Enterprises, a legal research company. Wang also works at internships and attends college part-time.

He described his life after receiving a 12-year sentence for aggravated robbery at the age of 15.

"I hated myself but in the end, the experience turned into a gift," Wang said. "In prison, I discovered what my values really were. I came to truly value my family, education and the importance of having good people around me." Wang said that in PEP, he was surrounded by people with good values who worked hard and who cared about him.

"I was a criminal. Now, I am an entrepreneur, a philanthropist and a proud member of the Prisoner Entrepreneur Program," said Wang, prompting audience members to a standing ovation.

For more information on PEP, visit www.pep.org.