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Program gives former prisoners fresh start, new hope

Meet Lincoln Allen, 33. The state of Nevada took him away from his unfit mother when he was 12. He became a foster child and went on the run shortly after. By the time his father cleaned up his act and took his son under his wing, 14-year-old Lincoln wasn’t just smoking crystal meth, he was cooking it, too. His first of four prison sentences came at age 18 for check fraud.

Meet Jennifer Allen. Also 33, she grew up in a loving, churchgoing, two-parent home with two siblings. That didn’t stop her from finding crystal meth, heroin and crime at age 14. She was 21 when she served the first of three prison sentences. She committed car theft.

Now, take a look at their happy home. On a recent Friday night, the two daughters Lincoln has sole custody of made a ruckus in the bedroom that holds their matching princess beds. A cat named Extra caused mischief and Jennifer’s oldest daughter Tabitha sorted Halloween candy and joked around with her new stepdad.

You might think these two meeting each other would only result in more prison time. Quite the opposite. They married last August before family and friends who thought they’d never see the day.

With the help of a privately funded program called HOPE for Prisoners and an employer willing to take a risk on two felons, they plan to keep surprising folks.

But they couldn’t embrace their new lives without leaving the old ones behind.

"The worst feeling in the world," Jennifer says, "is to drive by the house you grew up in and not be able to go inside."

Her mom never stopped talking to her. Her dad was another story. It took Jennifer dragging him down the street from the side of her car, for him to finally cut her off.

He was trying to stop his daughter. From what? Smoking meth, neglecting her two kids, stealing property, getting locked up – "everything," says Jennifer. And he was willing to get dragged down the street for it. When his daughter refused to stop – her lifestyle and her car – he finally gave up.

Two years passed before they resumed contact. She woke up in a hospital bed to the sweet sound of her dad getting after nurses for not cleaning her up. Jennifer was trying to turn her life around when a car struck her in a hit and run. She was walking down the street clean and sober.

Her dad, Kenny Scherado, had heard the promises before, but this time seemed different.

"When Jenny was in the hospital, she refused drugs for the pain," says Scherado, who broke down in tears recalling it. "That’s when I felt she deserved a second chance."

It’s still hard to talk about, but "it’s a happy hard," he says. It took time, but she recovered. The same goes for her car accident injuries.

After her third, and what she’s calling final, prison sentence, Jennifer found a nonprofit program that wasn’t out looking for grant money, as she puts it. Through mentorships and collaborations with a bevy of government agencies, HOPE for Prisoners gives participants the tools and resources necessary to re-enter their families, the workforce and society.

It’s all in an effort to prevent released prisoners from re-offending. And, as the name implies, it’s successful because of the hope it instills.

"You got judges, district attorneys, guards, COs, everyone telling you you’re a piece of shit," Lincoln says. "And that’s what I truly believed."

He got high behind bars through every prison sentence except his last one. He can’t pinpoint exactly why, but he didn’t have the urge to do drugs anymore. "Sometimes you’re just done," he says.

But he still had feelings of worthlessness. At least his criminal heists temporarily lent some self-esteem. Manufacturing fake credit cards, after all, requires serious street smarts.

He didn’t think guys like him could change, until he saw proof. He witnessed violent offenders going through HOPE and coming out with honest jobs. That’s all it took. If they could do it, so could he.

Lincoln and Jennifer credit HOPE for Prisoners for their transformations, but they also thank their current employer at Real Water for trusting the transformations to stick.

Real Water President Brent Jones looked at it, not as taking a chance on two former prisoners, but giving one.

"I used to work as a lawyer and I hated it," he says. "At the end of the day I’d think, ‘What value am I bringing society?’ Now, it feels so good when I see stories like Jen and Lincoln. It just warms your heart. I actually win."

Jones hired Lincoln, whom he calls "very smart," and Jennifer, whom he describes as "really hard-driving," to work his production line. The couple met when Lincoln had to train Jennifer on a blow mold machine.

"We started talking," Jennifer says. "And that’s all she wrote."

Lincoln has worn several hats since he started in the spring of ’11 and Jennifer was just promoted to a position in human resources after 18 months of employment.

It’s been a year, Jennifer says, since Lincoln walked into a restaurant and leaned over to tell her how many cameras surrounded them. That’s because burglary isn’t on his mind anymore. Jennifer has had one urge to smoke dope and it came after she watched an episode of the TV program "Breaking Bad," which deals with the mass production of crystal meth.

Once it passed, it didn’t worry either of them. They simply have too much to live for now.

"I don’t take a single thing for granted anymore," says Jennifer. That includes her father telling her how great she’s doing, buying her daughter Alexis a cellphone, paying her bills on time.

The two aren’t above poking fun at their checkered pasts, either. Lincoln and Jennifer’s wedding invitations were printed with a Wild West theme.

"WANTED," they read, "Witnesses for the hitchin’ of two outlaws."

Contact Xazmin Garza at xgarza@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.

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