There are some people you meet and you just know, they’re special. Brian and I would share that sentiment about Charles Hearne after sharing some BBQ with him in Houston, Texas. I had initiated the meet-up because Charles had been working as the liaison between me (a business advisor) and the guys going through the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) for the last few years. After visiting the Cleveland Correctional Facility, I wanted to shake hands with the guy who had been so encouraging to me as an advisor and also ask him a few questions about the program.
Anyone who meets Charles would describe him as a humble, kind and ambitious man. He’s well dressed, clean-cut and has a smile that easily spreads across his face at any given moment.
Not only is Charles working for PEP as their full-time Executive Relationship Manager, he’s also enrolled in Business School at The University of Houston. He has been promoted and recognized by the PEP program as a key member of their team – he has been promoted not only for his ambition and talents – but also, because of his ability to completely understand the true value of the program.
He understands it because he graduated from the program when he served a 4-year-sentence for the possession and delivery of a controlled substance.
That time of his life he would describe as rock bottom — he had given up on himself completely and considered his life over.
Charles story starts out like many I’ve heard from the guys in the PEP program. Raised in a single-family home – his mother worked and went to school full-time. He had a strong desire to feel accepted and found that from a rough group of friends. Thankfully, by high school his mother had graduated college and was able to keep a better eye on him – which he attributes to the reason he made it through high school without a record.
Charles decided to enlist in the Military – his plan was to obtain a degree in Nursing and get a job working in a civilian hospital – but an injury to his patellar tendon derailed those plans. After spending months in a hospital for a related infection, Charles started to slip into a deep depression, which would eventually land him back into hanging out with the same rough crowd of friends from high school.
He admitted having moments of clarity when he knew he wanted to get out. He explained that turning his life around at that time wouldn’t just be walking away from the drugs, it would be walking away from relationships and that was the most difficult thing to leave behind – his friends – the people who loved and accepted him. He just didn’t have the strength to alienate himself, like he knew he would need to do to get clean.
So, he ended up getting caught and getting sentenced to 4-years in prison.
He admitted that he threw himself a pretty large pity party when he first got locked-up, he had given up on his life – assumed this was really the end of it all. There was a pastor that visited the jail that he would avoid at all costs – until one day he couldn’t avoid him any longer. The guy prayed for him and handed him a Bible during that visit. I think Charles knew what he was trying to avoid and faced it head-on that day – he knew that deep down there was a God that loved him, despite his mistakes and wanted him to have a second chance. On that day he committed to making the most out of his time in prison.
Around that time a lay-in assignment was delivered to his dorm by the correctional officer on duty, the slip of paper just said, “PEP”. No one knew what it was, except an older guy in his unit, who told him that he’d be crazy not to go. It piqued Charles interest, so he went.
As they all took their seats in the room, a guy walked in with a nice suit and a briefcase, which was extremely odd to see in prison. Everyone sat up a little straighter when this guy entered. He had a presence about him that impressed Charles. He went on to describe the Prison Entrepreneurship Program and then said he wanted to play a video. Everyone in the room was shocked to see that the same guy wearing the nice suit was featured in this video in a jump suit.
This man had a real story to tell. At that moment Charles said to himself, “I want to be that guy.” He wanted to come out on the other side of this thing better. He wanted to not just endure, but better himself while in prison. He quickly realized that the PEP program would give him the opportunities and tools he needed to do just that.
After watching the video, guys that were interested in applying for PEP were given a written test to take back with them. Everyone who passed the test (which included questions about personal finance, business vocabulary, PEP ten driving values and rules of the program) was then given a face-to-face interview. Charles was verbally accepted into the program directly after his interview and within two weeks was transferred to the Cleveland Correctional Facility, where he would await his classes to begin.
He was expecting to start his Entrepreneurship program training with basic business classes, but quickly realized he was in for surprise when the first three months were dedicated to character development (Effective Leadership) — which he now recognizes as a critical component of the program’s success. This program digs deep and has the guys not only reflect on their own character, but also support and offer observations of each other. This part of the program also dives into the spiritual side of their lives, leadership and what it means to be a man. The program then rolls into a more traditional business school regimen – only their training is laced with touch-points from businessmen/women and entrepreneurs that support the program.
There are many high-level and successful executives that support and donate time to seeing these guys become successful. They offer advice in a Shark-Tank-like pitch night and also mentoring opportunities post-release.
Once released from prison, graduates of PEP don’t just get a check and a bus ticket – they get a Transition Coordinator that drives them to their transitional housing and mentors that are ready to help them do everything from find a job to file paper to get a driver’s license.
Not only that, there’s a brotherhood among these men. They support each other once they’re out and even create jobs for one another. The PEP program graduates have an average of 20-days from prison to paycheck – which is incredible. Not to mention the three-year recidivism (return to prison) rate is less than 7% for PEP graduates, while the national average looms at 50%. PEP is doing something right and countries all over the world are looking to copy their model and apply it to their own correctional systems.
I had the privilege of watching Charles interact with the men in the program while in prison. I saw the hope in their eyes as Charles walked through the gym – they gave him high-fives, bear hugs, slaps on the back and handshakes. I could tell that above all else Charles and his story had given them hope.
As Charles and I close our conversation, I ask him, “so, have you had the chance to go back and recruit guys into PEP? Did you get the chance to be that guy in the suit?” I hear him smile over the phone…”I did he says…and I can’t describe the feeling better than to say it felt like I had come full circle.” He said it felt surreal to have some of the guys that he recruited come to the PEP office post-release and thank him for a second chance. I can only imagine how that moment must have felt – and how rewarding his work must be, knowing for certain what’s at stake with each life that enters into this program.
As I thanked him for sharing his story with me he expresses how he doesn’t feel like he would be a wise steward of his story if he didn’t share it.
He explains, “I know that I’m a product of the choices I’ve made, but also I’m a product of redemption.”
In his LinkedIn profile, Charles summarizes his plans for his future:
“My dreams have always been larger than the small, country northeast Texas town I was raised in. Growing up, I knew I wanted to do extraordinary things and somehow make a positive impact in the world.”
Charles story is a beautiful story of redemption that has already made a positive impact on so many – and I’m grateful that I get to call him a friend.