Inmates in several Southern Nevada prisons will now have an opportunity to begin preparing for life on the outside as much as a year and a half before their release.
Hope for Prisoners, an organization credited with helping former inmates adjust to life on the outside, is forging a partnership with the state that puts it on campus at Casa Grande in Clark County, a transitional housing facility for 400 inmates eligible for release within 18 months.
“This is a game changer for the state,” says Hope for Prisoners founder Jon Ponder, who has helped hundreds of ex-offenders a year bridge the gap between confinement and freedom.
Last year, 340 former offenders, or “Hopefuls” as Ponder calls them, graduated from the program that helps them gain education, find work, mend tattered relationships and most of all, stay out of prison.
“For years we’ve been working with people who are already out of custody. This allows us to get to them 18 months earlier,” Ponder said.
Hope for Prisoners, which has provided re-entry services for close to a decade in Nevada, is expanding its services beyond Florence McClure Women’s Prison and High Desert near Indian Springs, where it currently assists with pre- and post-release programs.
“This allows our tentacles to reach into Southern Desert Correctional Center, too,” says Ponder, emphasizing the continuum of care approach the partnership makes possible.
“Inmates were getting substance abuse counseling already, but when they got released, it stopped,” Ponder said. “Now we’ll go in and do the counseling and those same people will continue it after release.”
Partnerships with College of Southern Nevada and Laborers Union 872 will allow participants to choose between enrolling in courses or apprenticeship programs.
“They can complete three credits before they are even released,” says Ponder. “Then the idea is to get them into a job and do a warm hand-off to CSN to continue their education.”
A pilot program approved by the Nevada Legislature in 2017 covers the cost of tuition.
“Those who want to fast track into a trade can join the Laborers’ apprenticeship program,” Ponder says.
The program will bring vocational training “to the inside,” says Ponder.
“In partnership with CSN, we are going to bring culinary training for servers, prep cooks, line cooks. They’ll have jobs lined up before they’ve even been released, but we have to make sure our people are qualified and skilled,” Ponder says.
“We’ll have a computer lab to learn everything from ‘this is a mouse’ to obtaining Microsoft certification,” he says. “We have manufacturing jobs coming down the pipe. We want to make sure we can train folks for those good-paying jobs. We have warehouse training on OSHA standards.”
“They’ll get financial literacy training so they manage their money and their money doesn’t manage them,” says Ponder.
“I tip my hat to (Department of Corrections Director) Jim Dzurenda, who is putting a strong emphasis on education and jobs,” says Ponder. “These people will be assets, not liabilities. Our employer pool has exploded and with the job market the way it is, employers are willing to look beyond the past.”
“Hopefuls” who graduate from the program rely on hundreds of volunteer mentors to assist ex-offenders in their transition. Many of those mentors are Las Vegas Metropolitan Police officers.
Ponder says not all inmates nearing release need the structure provided by Hope for Prisoners.
“We’re going after that targeted population,” says Ponder, who relies on a reentry manager to determine who “is destined to fail with us not being there.”
A bipartisan mix of public officials attended a ribbon-cutting Saturday at the group’s new Casa Grande offices. Among them — Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Assemblyman Steve Yeager, all Democrats, and State Senators Scott Hammond and Keith Pickard, both Republicans.
“It’s so beautiful because it shows the work we are doing is not a partisan thing. It’s an ‘it works thing,’” says Ponder.
Ponder is hoping for bipartisan support in Carson City, where a measure is before lawmakers to award $600,000 a year in grants to narrowly defined reentry programs, such as Hope for Prisoners.
Senate Bill 110 is sponsored by Sen. Scott Hammond, a Republican. The bill has been referred to the Finance Committee, where a similar measure failed to get a hearing last session.
Nevada has about 20,000 inmates in its prisons and jails. About 5,600 are released every year.
A 2016 study by the University of Nevada Las Vegas followed Hope for Prisoner participants over the course of 18 months.
“Of the 522 individuals who completed the job readiness training course, 64% found stable employment. Of those employed, 25% found employment within 17 days of the training course. Only 6% of these 522 individuals were reincarcerated during the 18-month study period,” the UNLV study says.
A Pew Trust study of 23 states revealed 37 percent of inmates released in 2012 had at least one new prison admission by the end of 2015.