Wouldn’t it be nice to have a “restart” button for your life? Some people need it more than others. It can seem impossible to start over, even if you’re an average Joe with a clean slate. But what if you had a criminal history haunting your every move? Is it even an option?
Weekend Express spoke to two former felons who know the struggle firsthand. They both served time for felonies, and they’ve turned their lives upside down to get back on track. Where they once lived behind bars, they now go to work Monday through Friday like anyone else. They wear suits and ties. They grocery-shop with their families and attend their kids' soccer games. They are successful business owners who also know what it's like to be behind bars. They are graduates of a Texas-based program, Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP).
Mike and Jeff both grew up in self-described "good" homes with nothing out of the norm. In Mike's later teens, he started getting involved with drugs and alcohol, which eventually led to a "pretty severe" charge shortly after his 21st birthday. Driving home after a night out celebrating, Mike nearly ran over a police officer and was charged with "attempted capital murder of a police officer."
Bailed out of jail by his parents, Mike's attorney estimated the 21-year-old could be facing up five to 99 years in jail. With that news, Mike continued to rack up more charges -- including a DWI. Somehow, he got off with probation. Over the course of the next 10 years, Mike violated his probation several times, eventually leading to a 6-year prison sentence. The arrest nearly "crushed him" and he begged God to hold his wife and four kids together.
Jeff also got into trouble when he began "running with the wrong crowd," experimenting with drugs and alcohol in his teenage years. The "play hard, work hard" mentality guided Jeff in his twenties. He became an addict and spent time in and out of rehab. At age 32, Jeff was sent to prison for a year as a result of his drug and alcohol addictions. Once he was released, Jeff found himself lured back into the same old habits as before. Within six months, he was back in prison for a three-year sentence for robbery by assault.
While in prison, both Jeff and Mike were selected to participate in PEP, an organization that aims to help felons learn essential business skills. Both men credit the program for re-directing their lives into something greater. They say it gave them an invaluable support system, the opportunity to refine their character and showed them other success stories for motivation.
Once released, Mike and Jeff both had a long road ahead -- from the emotional reunions with their reluctant families to the hardships of purchasing a home with a criminal history. Not to mention, both men were attempting to jump-start their own businesses (construction and printing companies, respectively) with the words "convicted felon" haunting their every move, decision and potential partnerships.
Mike called one failed business contract due to his history "heartbreaking." He never reveals his past life to prospective clients, hoping the hard work and integrity will speak for itself. Jeff admitted he is often times "a little too honest" about his past with some clients, but also hopes his work ethic and craftsmanship will do the talking.
Both men employ a number of PEP graduates. Why hire former felons? As Mike explained, it's about offering opportunities that other employers may not. "They are hungry and there is not a whole lot of opportunity to get successful living elsewhere and bring home a living."
Mike and Jeff both hope to see their businesses thrive. Although they both know their pasts could potentially stifle business or their reputations, they keep moving ahead in hopes they'll change stereotypes and inspire others.