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Las Vegas-based program gives prisoners hope after release

A Las Vegas-based program for people getting out of prison is gaining national prominence for groundbreaking mentorship models and unprecedented partnerships with law enforcement agencies.

Hope for Prisoners’ founder the Rev. Jon Ponder and his team have given more than 1,500 Nevada inmates the skills they need to return as productive members of society. The nonprofit organization partners with law enforcement agencies across the state, including the Metropolitan Police Department and the Nevada Department of Corrections.

The program has had such positive effects that it caught the attention of Rep. Cresent Hardy, R-Nev., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Soon it could be a best-practices model for communities across the United States.

“The first time I met Jon, I knew he was on the right track,” said Hardy, who contends the prison system isn’t working well. “Here in this nation we’re in a great divide, and I think there’s some solutions here that can help.”

Ponder and community development guru Bob Woodson Sr., founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, held a summit last week to bring together activists, organizers and reformers from across the nation.

COMMUNITY SUMMIT

About 50 people gathered Thursday afternoon in a Palace Station ballroom, where groups from Dallas, Baltimore, Indiana and Wisconsin shared ideas for more than four hours.

Woodson, who famously orchestrated a peace treaty between rival gangs in one of Washington’s roughest neighborhoods, used the summit to launch his new “3-C” movement (for cops, community and country). Woodson said partnerships are needed to repair the breach between minority communities and law enforcement and help at-risk youths and neighborhoods.

“It all begins with transformation and redemption,” Woodson said. “There’s no substitute for that.”

Milwaukee-based Running Rebels Community Organization — a 36-year-old homage to UNLV’s basketball team, according to founder Victor Barnett — runs “Violence Free Zones” at area middle and high schools to reach at-risk teens and build the skills they need to keep them out of trouble.

Dallas’ Urban Specialists wants to change cultures that glorify street crime and recruits people from the streets to be mentors.

“The people most needed are often the most under-utilized,” group founder Omar Jahwar said.

That’s a Hope for Prisoners’ principle, too. The organization has more than 200 mentors who are cops, religious leaders and program graduates. A UNLV study of the program found that participants with mentors were more likely to find jobs and stay out of trouble.

POLICE PARTNERS

On Friday morning, conference attendees piled into a shuttle bus to head to Metro headquarters for an introduction to Hope for Prisoners. They heard from state leaders and Las Vegas police.

Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt told the crowd that a lack of state resources can mean there are not enough rehabilitation programs for inmates, so it’s a blessing the state has an innovative private organization to step in and fill that gap. And through the police partnership, the program’s participants graduate with an appreciation for law enforcement.

“I will certainly be advocating for this to be a national model,” Laxalt said.

Metro Undersheriff Kevin McMahill gave a stirring speech about the how the department evolved to embrace community programs, and Assistant Sheriff Todd Fasulo explained the new Hope for Prisoners program established at the Clark County Detention Center.

Thirteen inmates at the county jail joined the program’s culinary school. Future plans for the program involve providing training for commercial driver’s licenses, warehouse management and carpentry apprenticeships.

“Cops never thought of doing something like that ever,” Fasulo said. “You interject a six-to-eight week program that could potentially change the rest of their lives.”

Ponder will be reaching out to his business partners to secure job placements. The detention center’s culinary students likely will be considered for jobs at Station Casinos, he said.

The conference closed with a graduation ceremony for the newest class from Hope for Prisoners.

“This conference was so important because the missing element in our work was law enforcement support,” Woodson said.

Contact Wesley Juhl at wjuhl@reviewjournal.com and 702-383-0391. Follow @WesJuhl on Twitter.

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