Brittany Dodd is all smiles as she talks about her plans to go to college, work hard and become a drug and alcohol counselor. A few months ago, the 23-year-old’s future seemed uncertain when she was released from the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center in Las Vegas.
Dodd was sent to prison for robbery when she was age 18. Dodd claims that her life had been full of instability and family dysfunction.
“I’ve been living on my own since I was 12 years old, when I ran away from home,” Dodd said. “I was trying to survive, and that’s what led up to my robbery. I just wanted to find some sort of stability.”
A few days before being released, Dodd heard about Hope for Prisoners, a re-entry program that works with men, women and young adults who are coming out of every arena of the judicial system.
The organization’s main goals are to provide enough support and service to return ex-offenders back into the workplace and place mechanisms so that the individual will thrive and succeed.
Dodd participated in the organization’s weeklong workshop, and with the help of the program, she was offered her first job at United Recycling.
“The majority of people really do want to change,” said Jon Ponder, founder of Hope for Prisoners. “They just have no idea how to do it. We work with individuals to help them become standout leaders in the community so that they’re not reoffended again.”
Once individuals graduate from the weeklong workshop, they work with mentors for 18 months. During that time, they also participate in community service.
Ponder said that since starting the organization in 2009, more than 600 hopefuls, as he calls the participants, have graduated from the program, and he estimated that fewer than 12 percent of those who graduate return to prison.
The program relies heavily on an army of 200 men and women from faith-based communities who serve as mentors. Mentors work with the individuals to provide guidance, friendship and assistance with jobs.
The program recently partnered with the Metropolitan Police Department.
Police volunteer as mentors and teach a two-hour workshop that focuses on tearing down law enforcement barriers and stereotypes.
Lt. Chris Petko of the Metropolitan Police Department teaches a human relations class.
“I help folks in the reintegration process by teaching how to maintain human relationships,” Petko said. “The program is structured for people to become successful and productive members of society.”
Police officers have also started volunteering to facilitate a book club for members of the program.
Ponder knows firsthand about the difficulties individuals face when coming out of prison.
“I have a gigantic passion for what I do because I’m an ex-offender myself,” Ponder said. “I’ve been doing time since I was 12 years old. There are several challenges that they face. Number one is employment. Many hopefuls have never had a job before.”
The organization has partnered with different employers to connect individuals with jobs and provide assistance along the way.
“We tell (employers), you’re not only hiring him, you’re hiring an entire army that’s going to be with him for the next 18 months,” Ponder said. “We’ll do everything that we can to change the face of re-entry.”
More than 650,000 ex-offendersy are released from prison every year, and studies show that approximately two-thirds are likely to be rearrested within three years of release, according to the United States Department of Justice.
Hope for Prisoners relies heavily on donations and has gained a strong following and support from lawmakers.
State Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, is an advocate of the program.
“Everyone deserves a second chance, and that’s what Jon is doing — he’s giving people a second chance at life,” Cegavske said. “It’s chilling to see the changes that individuals have made through this program. It really helps restore your faith in people.”
M. Alexis Kennedy, associate professor at UNLV’s Department of Criminal Justice and board member at Hope for Prisoners, added that the program helps individuals regain control of their lives and reconnect with family.
“A lot of these individuals are parents and want to rekindle that relationship right away,” Kennedy said. “We want to help them make that connection.”
While she was living on her own, Dodd spent countless nights on the street or at the homes of strangers. She became pregnant at age 15 and recalls having to sleep at Sunset Park during her pregnancy. She became pregnant again two years later.
“My kids got involved with Child Protective Services, and they were adopted out,” Dodd said. “When I lost my kids and I started using drugs even heavier, I flipped out mentally, and that’s when I got involved in a home invasion.”
Since starting the program at Hope for Prisoners, Dodd said she has enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada and looks forward to giving back to her community.
She said she is planning a better future not only for herself but also in hopes of seeing her children.
“It’s a pain that never goes away,” Dodd said. “It’s something that you can never forgive yourself for, but it also motivates you. I crave a better life. I want normalcy in my life. I just want to be happy.”
Contact Sunrise/Whitney View reporter Sandy Lopez at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4686.