Recidivism rates across the country are extremely high. In this episode, AMU’s Dr. Jarrod Sadulski talks to Jon Ponder, the CEO of Hope for Prisoners, a faith-based, non-profit organization that focuses on reducing recidivism by helping to rehabilitate offenders and prepare them for reentry. Learn about its intensive training program with inmates while they’re still incarcerated and its case management and mentoring programs that assist for 18 months after their release. Also learn how they partner with law enforcement agencies to work with inmates as well as companies to hire formerly incarcerated people.
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Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Hello everyone. My name is Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, and today I have the privilege to interview in our podcast, Mr. Jon Ponder. Mr. Ponder, welcome. Thank you for joining us.
Jon Ponder: Jarrod, thank you so much for having me on.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Absolutely. So, Mr. Ponder is the President and CEO of Hope for Prisoners, and Hope for Prisoners consists of a team that helps previously incarcerated individuals get into re-entry programs, they provide long-term support services, as they help those that have been incarcerated, reclaim their lives, their families, and their standing in the community.
One of the things that I really admire about Hope for Prisoners, is your relationships with law enforcement. From my background in law enforcement, I really admire you and what you do. So, let me begin by saying thank you for everything that you do for our nation and our community. Could you please share your background with us and also your experience in how faith has changed your mindset and direction of your life while in prison?
Jon Ponder: Oh, absolutely. And thank you for the opportunity, honored to be here. A little bit about me: Firstly, I grew up the product of a single-parent home. Dad left home at a very early age, leaving my mom to raise five knucklehead boys and one knucklehead girl, all by herself.
My story is much like the stories that you hear about in urban communities, growing up in that environment without the father in the home, the streets led us to the drugs, drugs led to the gangs, gangs led us to criminal activity. That criminal activity led me to my very first set of handcuffs at the tender age of 12 years old, and life just spiraled out of control from there.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: And so, I understand that you received a Presidential pardon on August 25th, 2020, is that correct?
Jon Ponder: That is correct. And what an absolute honor it was to be pardoned by the Office of the President at United States.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: And so well deserved. I admire so much what you’ve done, and what you’ve done in your life, and how you’ve helped so many other people work through the problems that have led them into incarceration, and then have provided these long-term services to help individuals regain their lives.
So, for our audience, just to understand recidivism. Recidivism is re-offending, and committing another crime. According to one government website, within three years of release from prison, two out of three, or 66% are rearrested, and more 50% are incarcerated. According to the Harvard Political Review, the United States has a recidivism rate as high as 76.6%. Could you please share with us how Hope for Prisoners was created and the mission and goals of Hope for Prisoners?
Jon Ponder: Absolutely. So Hope for Prisoners was birth out of my own personal experiences. From that time at 12 years old, again, spiraling out of control, caught my very first felony conviction at 16 years old, didn’t learn my lesson, back and forth from different jail systems and prison systems until I had to spend some time in a maximum security United States, federal penitentiary behind 50-foot walls.
It was at that point, that I look back over the last 37 years of my life, and realized that I had not accomplished anything of great significance. I wasn’t the person that God created me to be. I wasn’t the father that I was supposed to be to my children. So, I found myself in that prison cell, and so then I had a conversation with God, and asked God to number one, forgive me for all the sins that I’ve committed. And I asked Jesus to be the Lord of my life, and to step in and turn my life around. And 100%, He did.
My life went in a 180 degree turn in the other direction. So while I was inside that maximum security United States federal penitentiary, and trying to better my life, trying to make sure that when I step outside that gate, that I would be leaving behind that life of destruction, and drug addictions, and gang affiliations.
So, during that time, while I’m spending time with God and reading my Bible, God impregnated me with this vision of Hope for Prisoners, so that we can have an opportunity to turn right back around and help all those other men and women who were in bondage to those same things that I was in bondage to, struggling with the same things that I was struggling with, and to be able to help them, to escort them up to the next level of life.
So I founded Hope For Prisons back in 2009, when I came home from prison. Since that time, Jarrod, we had the great privilege of working with over 4,500 men and women have been through our process. Of that 4,500 individuals who have been through our process, according to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, an unprecedented 74% of those were successful in gaining full-time employment in sustainable-wage jobs. 25% of those were full-time employed within 17 days after graduating the first phase of our process. And of those men and women that we’ve had the privilege to work with, according to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, only 6% of those individuals returned back to the prison system.
And as you alluded to, that national recidivism rate of north of 79%, saying 79% within three years, they’ll be back in the prison system. I think that we’re at that 6%, we’re knocking it out of the ballpark, but, Jarrod, we are always looking for ways to improve the caliber, the efficiency of what it is that we do, because our desire is not to lose anyone.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That is absolutely incredible. So, what do you attribute to the success of Hope for Prisoners? And how does Hope for Prisoners partner with local law enforcement to foster rehabilitation?
Jon Ponder: One of the things that we’ve found, Jarrod, when we are working with people from this segment of the population, and I speak from personal experiences, that the majority of people, they really want to change, but they have no idea how to do it.
So, for so long, we’ve been telling people from this segment of the population, to, “Complete your prison system and get back out in the community, become a productive member of society.” They have no idea what that might look like.
Or we tell people from this segment of the population to, “Go get a job and support yourself and your family.” And some of us have never worked a legitimate job a day before in our life. Or we tell men to come home and take their rightful positions in their home as the fathers, and the husbands that they were meant be. But they have no healthy reference point in what that might look like.
So, the success of Hope for Prisoners, it’s all about training and equipping people not only things that are going to be able to help them to get a job and maintain that job, but we come alongside them, and lay down the foundation that is going to help them to build up a brand-new life again, with the overall goal of them never, ever re-offending again.
So, in that intensive training, we train them intensively on things like the importance of the winning attitude, the attitude about their past, the attitude about their present condition, and how could we cultivate a winning attitude in them, that’s going to carry them into a successful future. We train them very intensively on things like how to go above and beyond the call of duty, inside their home, inside the workplace, and inside the community.
We take a deep dive into understanding the different personality types of the people that you’re going to be interacting with. Effective communication, goal setting, time management, banking, budgeting, conflict resolution, when and how to apologize, the importance of forgiveness.
And then we put a strong emphasis on leadership. Teaching individuals, number one, how do you lead yourself? How do you get those results that you’ve always wanted to get out of life? How do you be that leader in your family? And, ultimately, what does that look like for you to be a stand-up leader out in the community? Because that’s the overall goal of our mission, is we want to change the face of re-entry. We want to change what it means to be people who have paid their debt to society, and getting back out in our community, and truly fighting for a second chance.
The only way that we are going to be able to do that, is to help to create a massive amount of people who come home from the prison system. And not only do they never re-offend, again, we do whatever we can with every resource that we have, to help them to live levels of life that most people only dream of.
Then after that intensive training, we come alongside them for the next 18 months. See, we didn’t think that it was enough to put them into this training, and teach them all these incredible things, of how to live their life, and then launch them back out in the community by themselves. If we do that, we will waste time, effort, energy, and resources.
So what we do, which is a cornerstone of our success, is for the next 18 months, we walk with them through intensive case management and mentoring, to where we’ve trained up well over 550 men and women from our community, that serves as mentors.
The mentorship and why that’s so important, Jarrod, because if you ask anybody who has ever achieved any significant level of success in life, “How did you do it? How did you get to where you are in life?” If that person’s completely honest with you, they’re going to admit that they did not get there on their own. They had people that were in their life that was guiding, directing, coaching, push, pulling, dragging, listening, and sometime kicking in the rear end every single step of the way.
So through our mentorship program of those 550 people, come from a very diverse background. Now these are pastors and leaders from churches across our valley. These are business owners and business leaders, and school teachers from our school district, to professors over at the university, right down to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, where the Sheriff has given us an army of volunteer police officers that are serving as mentors. Never before in the history of re-entry, nowhere on this planet, to this magnitude, has law enforcement gotten this involved in mentoring and training people coming home from our prison system.
And to be quite honest with you, it is causing such a win-win on both sides of the equations, because if you think about it, our goal is to help men and women who have paid their debt to society get back out in the community, and never re-offend again. In order for us to do that, we have to instill in them a character, a love and appreciation for the rules and regulations of the land.
We found, that got enhanced when we brought them into relationship with the men and women who uphold the law. And if you think about it, this partnership with law enforcement, not only is it helping men and women that are coming home, but if you flip the coin around to the other side, it’s helping men and women of law enforcement begin to view men and women who are coming home, who are truly fighting for a second chance, it helps them to view them from a whole other set of lenses.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That’s an amazing point. Absolutely, and one of the things that I love about Hope for Prisoners, is that it’s not that you’re only helping them obtain employment, but instead you’re providing a 360-degree opportunity for them to succeed, not only in their employment, but in their personal lives. It’s just absolutely incredible what you’re doing.
And I can see from having a background of 20 years in law enforcement myself, of why law enforcement is eager to partner with you in this, because it’s unheard of. It’s absolutely incredible. I can also, I really appreciate the thought of it overcomes barriers between somebody that’s formally incarcerated, and law enforcement. And I think, it humanizes the situation, and I think, it’s absolutely incredible what you’re. So thank you very much for what you do.
Jon Ponder: Oh, it is an absolute honor. On a bigger picture of it, if you take a look at what is happening in our world today, and communities and the, “Defund the police,” and people not liking the police, people do not trust police. The reason why people do not trust police, is because they are not in relationship with each other. In what relationship could you ever establish trust, unless there’s life rubbing up against life, in the spirit of complete transparency? So we understand that we have more in common than we have differences. I believe that out of that level of transparency, builds the relationship, and out of that relationship, trust begins to get established.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That’s absolutely amazing. Absolutely incredible work. We’re going to take a break. We’ve been talking to our guest, Mr. Jon Ponder. Again, the title of our podcast is Hope For Prisoner, the Jon Ponder story.
So, as we discuss Hope for Prisoners and rehabilitation, and avoiding recidivism, we’re taking a look at different ways that your organization really supports the whole person, and prepares them for life after incarceration. So, what are some ways that barrier can be overcome when it comes to employers providing the opportunity for formerly incarcerated individuals?
Jon Ponder: That’s a great question, Jarrod, thank you so much for asking it. Our model at Hope for Prisoners and working with employers, is that we don’t believe in job placement. We believe in job partnership. So, as we develop these partnerships with these employers, we let the employers know that they’re not just hiring John or Jane Doe, the formerly incarcerated person. They’re hiring this entire army of people with a vested interest, to be with them over of the next 18 months, to ensure that while they’re in that workplace, they’re going to be above and beyond the call of duty employees. The other thing that we’ve learned with the employers, from a business standpoint, is that employers are not willing to not hire formally incarcerated people. They’re not willing to hire a liability.
So, when we can train and equip formally incarcerated people to get inside that workplace so they can be a tremendous asset to that business, or that employer, instead of a liability, then that improves the probability of them getting full-time employment. One of the misconceptions about formally incarcerated people, is that they’re not going to work, they’re not going to show up on time, they’re going to get inside they’re going to steal, and things of that nature. This is why it’s so important that we train and equip them so that once again, when they get inside the workplace, we send them in there with a leadership mindset, that they’re inside this place of employment, and what they do inside the workplace, is going to open up the door for the next formerly incarcerated person, to be able to succeed inside that place of business.
If they get in there and fail, they get in and drop the ball, then not only does that slam the door for them, but we want them to be very mindful that there are other people who are looking for those second chances and that is a way for them to open up the doors for them.
You can incentivize employers with on-the-job training, money, and things of that nature, but when they understand that it’s a team of people that are there for them, that there’s a captain of the gang unit, that this person has a mentor, it just adds an extra level of accountability, I think that that puts the employers on such a safe island. And as a result of that, Jarrod, right now, Hope for Prisoners, we are sitting on more jobs right now than we can fill. These are not minimum-wage jobs, they’re jobs where people are going to earn sustainable wages, to be able to take care of themselves, and be able to take care of their family.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That’s incredible, thank you. Building on this discussion, as a follow-up question, what are some of the most important factors that influence successful rehabilitation for current and former inmates?
Jon Ponder: It’s the training, and it’s the equipping. It is also sharing the stories of the other formerly incarcerated people that have been where they are, and look at where they are today. So, our success is attributed to getting into the prison system, and working with them up to 18-months prior to them being released. So that we can go in and train them on things that’s going to help them to be successful. And making sure that we are addressing any issues of substance abuse, if drugs and/or alcohol had something to do with the incident or offense of why you went to prison, then you need to take that assessment. Out of that assessment is going to come a treatment plan, and sometimes that treatment plan might look like one-on-one counseling while they’re still in, by a member of the Hope for Prisoners staff.
Sometimes that may look like group settings. So just make sure you have those things addressed. Going in early on, and exposing them to true rehabilitation, and vocational training. And going in, and teaching them HVAC, plumbing, air conditioning, CDL schools, and all these things that we’re going to be able to tie directly with employment once they get released.
But again, once they walk out that back door, they’re not being released into the community to something unknown. There’s a family of Hope for Prisoners that are going to be there with them. And that helps us to create a continuum of care for the next 18 months as they get release.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That’s absolutely amazing how Hope for Prisoners is shaping lives. What are some of the barriers to faith-based rehabilitation programs that occur in the United States, and how can those be overcome?
Jon Ponder: I think that if you were to ask me as question 10, 15 years ago, or even when we first got started, I would say there are significant barriers as the faith-community come along to serve this segment of the population. I believe that times are changing. I know from my personal experience, that faith has a huge component in helping people being successful.
So, you’re helping to address their needs for housing, their transportation, their family reunification, and addressing those spiritual needs, because we know that addressing those spiritual needs and adding the faith component in it, is the thing that’s going to help them to remain and stay sustainable.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Absolutely. So, for our audience that would like to contact your organization, to learn more about your services, and also, can you explain how our audience could reach Hope for Prisoners.
Jon Ponder: Oh, absolutely. So, the first thing, is the visit our website at hopeforprisoners.org. That’s www.hopefor, and it’s F-O-R, prisoners.org, and there’s opportunities for folks to volunteer. You don’t have to live in our state to become a volunteer/mentor. We have this national model, where we pull in mentors from all over the world to be able to pour into the life of our people.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Excellent information. And I definitely encourage everyone to reach out to Hope for Prisoners to learn more, and to learn how you can get involved, because you’re investing in your own community. You’re investing in your own country. So, my final question, the podcast is going to be aired in prisons, including an international prison in Latin America. So, what would you say to current inmates that have not yet found hope, or what would you say to your former self in the past?
Jon Ponder: Thank you for that opportunity. And in that I’m going to share a story about me. When I first began my prison sentence, I stood before the single greatest adversity of my entire life, “I have to go off now, because of some crimes that I committed, I have to go spend time in a maximum security United States federal penitentiary.”
And, Jarrod, I remember the day when I pulled up on that bus, and those gigantic gates opened up, and the bus chugged into going to that prison. I looked up and I saw the seal of that federal prison. It said, “United States Maximum Security Federal Penitentiary.” But in my mind, I was determined, at that point, as I looked at that sign, I changed the words on that sign. And it said, “United States Learning Institution.” And I went into those 50-foot walls and I went to school.
I spent every waking moment of my time, number one, addressing the issues surrounding the circumstances that led to my arrest, inside that environment. I armed myself against those things to never, ever happen again. I wanted to learn everything that I possibly can, and I began to prepare, day one, for the time I was going to walk out that back door.
I used that time to get to know the real me, as I was laying on that bunk inside that prison cell, and I looked back over the last 37 years of my life, and realized that I hadn’t accomplished anything of great significance, I began to ask myself this question, as I’m feeling sick and tired of being sick and tired, knowing that I know that I know that I know that life has to be more than the last 37 years of how I’ve been living, if somehow something was different.
I began to understand the promises of this life, that looked so much different from my past. I stood on every one of those promises, and I wanted to make sure that when I walked outside that gate, that I’m living a very transformed life.
So, if there are people in prison right now, listening to my voice, I just want to encourage you that inside that environment, it could be such a fertile training ground for you. Take advantage of every bit of the time that you’re there, to learn and to grow and become the person that God has created you to be.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That is very powerful. Well, you are a role model, and there’s so many people that look up to you, certainly me included. Thank you so much for being such an inspiration to so many people, and for having the heart and compassion that you do, to show others the way. I’m honored to be your friend, and to join you in this podcast today. So again, thank you very much for your time today.
Jon Ponder: Oh, it is my absolute honor. God bless you.
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Likewise. Well, everybody, we’ve been speaking with Mr. Jon Ponder, the President and CEO of Hope for Prisoners. Thanks for joining us on the podcast.