As lawmakers in Carson City grapple with a bill that might change the sentencing system in Nevada's judicial system, one program has been quietly working to keep people from returning to prison.
It’s called Hope for Prisoners. Its goal is to help former inmates re-enter society, and stay out of the prison system.
After 10 years, its success rate is remarkable—just 6 percent of its graduates commit crimes that throw them back into prison.
Last week, 28 people, all of them former inmates, graduated from the program.
Jon Ponder started the program after being released from prison. He was serving a sentence for a series of bank robberies.
“I think one of the most challenging things I had to face when I was re-entering back in was to make sure that we were being able to get properly connected with employment and other supportive services one might need in order to be successful upon release,” he said.
Because of his struggle to find supportive services after his release, Ponder started Hope for Prisoners and began with building partnerships with employers.
“Not job placement but developing partnerships with employers has been the key to our success," he said, "To let the employers know, they’re not just hiring John or Jane Doe, the returning and former offender, they’re hiring an entire army of people that is going to be with them to help them be successful upon their release."
That army of people includes the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. Ponder said the officers teach returning offenders some basic skills many have never learned.
“We have police officers who come in and they train leadership principals," he said, "They train communication skills, personality types. All those things that internally our police department trains other police officers to help them to be successful. That is the level of training that they extend back to the formally incarcerated individuals.”
Ponder said the Metro officers are part of a group of 400 mentors who work closely with ex-felons to help them with everything they may need.
In the past, people were released from prison but many didn't have the "reference points" for creating a productive life outside criminal activity, Ponder said.
That is where his group steps in.
Ysenia Lopez understands personally what it is like to step out of prison with a felony record but a desire to change.
She served time for drug trafficking. When she got out and tried to get a job, she had to tell potential employers that she had had a felony conviction. Plus, she had to try to explain the lapse in employment when she was homeless and addicted.
Lopez never got a job.
“It felt like being retraumatized again and like, what’s the point?” she said, “I started to get desperate and that’s what brought me to Hope and things changed.”
She found Hope for Prisoners through Job Connect. It was at Hope for Prisoners that she was "embraced" by a community looking to help her.
“At this point, I was already feeling like the world is against me, including the judicial system, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and everybody else and to be embraced not just by Jon at Hope for Prisoners but all the community partners that he is connected with,” she said.
Lopez took a five-day workshop provided by Hope for Prisoners that taught basic life skills she never learned, like communication, leadership, teamwork and accepting help from others.
She was able to get a job with one of the community partners. Lopez felt she had to pay the organization back by being the best employee that she could be. Eventually, she was promoted to manager before taking a position at Hope for Prisoners.
Another supporter of the program is Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson.
“It’s a program that works. It’s pretty simple," Wolfson said.
He said for decades things have not been done right in Nevada and around the country. Formerly incarcerated people were returned to their lives with little or no support. In fact, the Department of Justice says around the country 83 percent of former prisoners are eventually sent back to prison.
Wolfson said Hope for Prisoners steps in to provide the supportive services they need to stay on track, which the majority of people who are released from prison want to do.
“It provides a myriad of services. It’s incredible the wrap-around services that Hope for Prisoners provides," he said.
Now, Wolfson and Ponder have started a program that provides wrap-around services for recently convicted people before they even go to prison.
And Hope for Prisoners doesn't shy away from tough cases, in fact, Ponder said that is who they are looking to help the most.
“If we go through with the low hanging fruit, who would succeed without us, what good have we done?” he said.
It costs around $5,500 per person per year to go through the 18-month program. In the 10 years since it started, Hope for Prisoners has graduated 2,700 people, which is remarkable, but Ponder pointed out about 6,000 people are released from Nevada's prisons each year.
Jon Ponder, founder/CEO, Hope For Prisoners; Steve Wolfson, District Attorney, Clark County; Ysenia Lopez, substance abuse counselor, Hope For Prisoners
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