At a time of wrenching division, police officers and those returning from prison share unexpected commonalities that can bring us together. On the surface, these two groups would seem dissimilar, but a groundbreaking Las Vegas program that bridges this divide has caught the attention of both the White House and the governor of Nevada. Perhaps more importantly, it has taken a bite out of crime by reducing re-offending while boosting employment.
The success of the “Hope for Prisoners” program, in which a third of the volunteer mentors helping those coming out of prison are police officers, is stunning. A UNLV study found only 6 percent of participants were re-incarcerated over 18 months and nearly two-thirds found full-time employment.
However, these results should not be so surprising. The two groups share many experiences and challenges. Not only should “Hope for Prisoners” be replicated, it can provide a template for similar innovations that bridge the gap between those who have broken the law and those charged with enforcing it.
“Hope for Prisoners” was founded by Jon Ponder, who received a pardon on Aug. 25 after having been incarcerated for robbery and two other convictions before turning his life around and becoming a chaplain. In addition to mentoring, the program provides workshops that build leadership, vocational training, and guidance for using technology and managing personal finances. Even those participants whose mentor is not a police officer learn in sessions from officers about the challenges they face.
What could police and people coming out of prison possibly share in common? For one, many spend their days in low-income neighborhoods. After all, those coming out prison typically have few resources and halfway houses and apartments willing to accept them do not tend to be in the poshest parts of town.
Yet those who wear the badge and the felon label share much more than proximity. Perhaps most importantly, both police and those who were formerly incarcerated are among the likeliest groups to have been exposed to trauma and violence. Professional development programs for officers and reentry programs for people coming out of prison can improve outcomes by identifying and addressing PTSD or other effects of such trauma through proven interventions.
In Gig Harbor, Wash., last year when Kandyce Benefield left a state prison, she was picked up by police officer Jennifer Eshom, one of nine police officers who have volunteered as mentors in the non-profit “If Project” program that serves Washington state’s sole maximum security women’s prison. It is no small undertaking, as it involves a year of communication before release followed by a year of mentoring thereafter. Benefield, who was abused as a foster child and gave birth in prison, had preconceptions about cops that were transformed by this relationship.
Soon after her release, Benefield began earning her first paycheck. As for Eshom, she said, “Kandyce has definitely helped me realize that everybody has a story. Everybody has some type of beginning an identity before they got involved in crime.”
In addition to often facing the common challenge of overcoming exposure to trauma and violence, these unlikely allies also bring unique capabilities to partnerships. In Jackson, Miss., formerly incarcerated individuals and police, like those in Las Vegas, are also forming an innovative bond. Benny Moore was once a gang leader and served his time, but now he is working with the Jackson Police Department as a “credible messenger.”
Together, they are seeking to reduce gun violence deaths, leveraging the standing that formerly incarcerated individuals can bring when interacting with others now in the shoes they once wore. While more research is needed on the impact of credible messenger partnerships with police on crime prevention, results of the “Arches” program involving young people in New York City suggest dramatic reductions in recidivism.
Although “Hope for Prisoners” is not limited to participants and mentors of any one religion, many officers and those they mentor not only share experiences, but also the power of prayer. As Americans, believers and non-believers alike, yearn for common purpose, these initiatives from Nevada to Mississippi are beacons of hope.
When Jon Ponder spoke at the White House in 2018, he prayed with the FBI agent who arrested him for robbing a bank. Crime and distrust fray the bonds that tie us together. If finding commonality in our experiences and confronting our shared vulnerabilities can unite a former bank robber and current cop, surely it can help heal our nation.