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Local Group Offers Hope for Ex-Felons

People getting out of prison have a hard time integrating back into civilian life. The biggest issue is jobs – many employers don’t want to hire an ex-felon.

But perhaps equally important is coming back to a community that supports you, rather than the community that may have led you to prison in the first place.

Hope for Prisoners is a Las Vegas-based organization that alleviates those transition problems. It offers mentors, job training and other vital resources to help ex-felons stay out of jail.

And, according to a UNLV study, it seems to work.

One of the people it worked for was Mario Taylor. 

Taylor went to prison in 1996 when he was 16 years old for second-degree murder with a deadly weapon.

When he was 15 years old, he got into a fight with a man named Christopher Beaver, following a traffic incident. Taylor had a gun and shot Beaver in the chest. 

He was originally sentenced to 20 to 90 years in prison, but his sentence was commuted. 

"I understand that punishment must go forth and there must be some type of  amends made," Taylor said, "Thus, if you commit a crime the reaction to that is going and spending time in prison."

But he said it's what you do in prison and how you get back into society that makes the difference. 

Just before he got out of prison, a pastor told him about the program. Taylor was able to get a job out of prison. Hope for Prisoners helped him by providing mentors and classes to re-acclimate himself.

"They gave me that breath of fresh air," he said, "They gave me that moment where I said, 'okay, I can actually do this.'"

Jon Ponder is the CEO of Hope for Prisoners. He created it after his own experience coming out of prison. 

"I learned very valuable lessons from the mistakes that I made and those lessons that I learned helped me live life on another level," Ponder said.

Employers are often wary about hiring ex-felons, but Ponder said part of his organization's job is creating job partnerships not job placement.

"We let the employers know that listen, 'you're not just hiring Jon and Jane Doe, the returning ex-offender, you're hiring an entire army of an organization that is going to be with them over the next 18 months to help them face whatever challenges they're going to face during the integration process.'"

Ponder said the mentors are key to whole program. They're available at all hours to help former prisoners with the tools they need to be a member of society, which is something many just don't know.  

“One thing that we have learned is that the majority of people from this segment of the population they really do want to change," he said. "They have no idea how to do it." 

He said his group provides training for interpersonal skills, customer service, parenting, communication really any kind of skill that will help someone be successful in returning to society.

"Everything that we possibly can to help them be successful that comes from personal and private donations," he said. 

The group has only seven employees and relies on donations and volunteers. Podner said those volunteers come from around the community from lawyers and doctors to business owners and pastors, even police officers are involved.

"Right down to the Metro Police Department that has given us an army of volunteer police officers to become part of that mentoring process," he said, "Never before in the history of re-entry, no where on this planet, has law enforcement gotten this engaged in mentoring and training men and women who are coming home from the system."

All of the work of the organization seems to be paying off. A study conducted by Emily Troshynski and her colleagues at UNLV show how well it is doing.

According to Troshynski, the normal recidivism rate for prisoners around the country is 27 percent over three years. The rate for those who go through the year and a half program at Hope for Prisoners is 6 percent in a year. Troshynski's team will continue to look at the long-term impact. 

"In Nevada, we don't have any research on re-entry right now so this was a project my colleagues and I really wanted to focus on," she said, "Because we heard about Hope for Prisoners and we heard about success stories that were happening there. So we wanted to get in and see what they were doing."

The need for re-integration services is vast in the country. Troshynski said one in 31 adults in the U.S. are involved in the criminal justice system, either they are incarcerated or they're on parole or probation. 

She said the people she talked to who went through Hope for Prisoners became emotional about their experience.

"Everyone that I talked to were very happy to the point where some people cried because they were so happy about the programming, the services they were receiving," she said.

As for Taylor, he is giving back to the organization that helped him get his life back. He is now a mentor for a young man who is out of prison on parole after going away when he was 14 years old for shooting and killing one young man and wounding another

And while his transition back to society from prison was not easy, Taylor believes his attitude was the reason he made it.

"I just refused to be institutionalized" he said. "As long as I'm free, I'm happy."

​Emily Troshynski, assistant professor at UNLV's Dept. of Criminal Justice;  Jon Ponder, CEO of Hope for Prisoners;  Mario Taylor, one of the first ex-felons helped by Hope for Prisoners

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