Skip to content
View Featured Image

This Is Why Coming Home From Prison Is So Difficult For So Many

Above photo: Inmates exercise in the maximum security yard of the Lansing Correctional Facility on April 18, 2023, in Lansing, Kansas. John Moore/Getty Images.

Over 70% of incarcerated people who are released from prison in the US will be rearrested within five years of their release date.

That’s no accident: our system of mass incarceration sets returning citizens up to fail.

The US has one of the highest prisoner recidivism rates in the world: over 70% of incarcerated people who are released from prison in the US will be rearrested within five years of their release date. That is not an accident. Our system of mass incarceration sets people up to fail as they leave the prison system and try to reintegrate into society. That is why organizations like Hope for Prisoners in Nevada are working to provide returning citizens with the resources and support they need to rebuild their lives and maintain their freedom. In this episode of Rattling the Bars, Mansa Musa speaks with Jon Ponder, founder and CEO of Hope for Prisoners, about why returning from prison is so difficult for so many, and what it takes to “empower the formerly incarcerated and their families to create a successful future.”


The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars, a show that amplifies the voices of people who are disenfranchised, marginalized, and subjugated while offering solutions. I’m your host, Mansa Musa. Joining me today is John Ponder, founder and CEO of Hope for Prisoners. Hope for Prisoners assists with reentry by providing to formerly incarcerated long-term support and services as they work to reclaim their lives, families, and standing in the community.

Welcome John.

Jon Ponder: I’m glad to be here. Thank you for having me.

Mansa Musa: All right, and full disclosure, I met John when I was in Vegas visiting Dominique Conway and a friend of mine connected me, told me I had to reach out to John when I got into Vegas. So ultimately we connected and he was gracious enough to have me come to his workplace, I want to call it. And it’s remarkable place, the work that you’re doing, I’m familiar with it and I’m doing some of them the same, myself. Tell our audience a little bit about Hope for Prisoners and how you came about that concept.

Jon Ponder: Oh yeah, absolutely. Again, I just want to make a reference to our time that we spent here in the office. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation because when you get two people that’s working on the same page, I could sit up and talk to you for hours. So our organization Hope for Prisoners. We work with men, women, and young adults that are exiting different arenas of our judicial system. And what we do is to provide the supportive services to help the men and women to successfully reintegrate back into the home, back into the workplace, and ultimately to help them to be standup leaders out into the community. So I founded Hope for Prisoners back in 2009. It was birthed out of my own personal experiences. I was a guy who was coming in and out of the system since I was 12 years old, been and out of every different juvenile systems in the State of New York, multiple jails, prisons here in the State of Nevada.

And then I got stretched out in the maximum security United States federal penitentiary behind 50 foot walls. So coming in and out of the system all that time, I made a whole lot of mistakes trying to get life right and I would violate and go right back to the prison system. But it came a time on that journey where God taught me tremendously valuable lessons from all those mistakes that I made and those lessons that I learned, it helped me to live life on a whole different level. So what my passion in life is, the reason why I founded the organization is to turn right back around and help the other men and women who were facing those same challenges that I once had to face, to do everything I can to remove the barriers that are preventing them from being successful and to help to escort them up to the next level of life.

Mansa Musa: And like you said, by your own admission by, I did 48 years in prison prior to getting out and at some point in time, I had to come to the realization that what I did that got me in prison, is not going to get me out. And if I do get out and hold onto it, it’s not going to sustain me. Talk about how your program offers sustainability to men and women coming out.

Jon Ponder: One of the things that we’ve learned, and again speaking from personal experiences, is that the vast majority of people from this segment of the population, they really do want to change, but they have no idea how to do it. So for so long we’ve been telling people in this segment of the population to come home and be a productive member of the community.

Mansa Musa: That’s right, that’s right.

Jon Ponder: But they have no idea what that looks like or we tell them sometimes even get a job and some of them have never worked a legitimate job a day before in their life. Or we ask men to come home and take their rightful positions in their home as the husbands and fathers that they need to be, but they have no healthy reference point up in here on what that might look like. So what it is that we do is we provide them with the tools to not only get a good job, but it’s important that we help them to maintain that good job. But we also lay down the foundation for which people can build up this brand new life to where they never, ever, ever re-offend again.

Mansa Musa: And that fact right there, that foundation, what do that foundation look like? Now, let me give you an example. I work in this organization called Voice for a Second Chance. What we do, we provide, when men and women come out of the system, we help them get their critical documents and try to stabilize as much as possible. We are not in a position to provide everybody how we create a housing mechanism for people, but the foundation that we have is that we let the people come in there know that if you follow the directions that we offer you, you will be stabilized. Not like tomorrow, but you will be stabilized. What’s that foundation look like for you, for hope?

Jon Ponder: So again, it is the training. It’s the complete wraparound services. We train very intensively on things like the importance of winning attitude, the attitude about their past, the attitude about their present condition, and how could we cultivate this winning attitude that’s going to help carry them into a successful future. We train very intensively on things like how to go above and beyond the call of duty inside the home, inside the workplace, and then out there in our community.

We take a deep dive into effective communication and understanding the different personality types, the people that you’re going to be interacting with inside the home, the workplace and the community. We also take a deep dive into goal setting and time management and banking and budget and conflict resolutions and when and how to apologize, the importance of forgiveness.

And then we put a strong emphasis on leadership. Teaching individuals, number one, how to 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 the family, in that workplace and ultimately out there in the community? So again, it’s those wraparound services. When we address the needs for housing, we address the needs for employment, we address the needs for transportation and then, also very important, the family reunification.

Mansa Musa: So in terms of walk me through a client coming out and how do they get access to Hope and walk me through that process. I just got out, I heard about y’all, where would I be at?

Jon Ponder: So the beauty of what it is that we do is that we have a pre-release model. We’re in seven institutions here in the state of Nevada where we work with them up to 18 months prior to them even being released. So doing that needs assessment with them. We do a risk assessment because we want to target the people who are moderate to high risk to re-offend. That’s our target population. If you could make it out there in the community without us and we help you be successful, what good have we done? So being able to get in there with them and number one, if drugs and or alcohol had something to do with the initial offense of why you went to prison. Then I have my licensed drug and alcohol counselors begin to work with them and do an assessment.

And out of that assessment, while they’re still inside, that comes up with a treatment plan. And sometimes that treatment plan on the inside looks like one-on-one counseling or group therapy. So we start all those intensive trainings while they’re on the inside and again up to 18 months. And when they get to the 12 month mark, then we fast track them into, for the next six months, into what we call… We built our vocational village to where we now train them before they get out, we train them with HVAC, electrical, plumbing, welding, warehouse logistics, other manufacturing and a masonry training program. And we built a full scale commercial driver’s license school on the prison yard. What does that mean? That means that not only are we addressing the cognitive and behavior change, the moral recognition therapy, but that vocational training that we have them go through, then that means that they are certified and ready to go to work the minute that they walk out the back door.

Now when they walk out the back door, remember we were 18 months before they get out, but then we put them into an 18 month mechanism once they get released. You see, it wasn’t enough for us to be able to train them very intensively while they’re inside. But if we release them out the community by themselves, we will have wasted time, effort, energy and resources. We do that through intensive case management and mentoring where we have trained up well over 550 men and women from our community that are serving as mentors right now.

These mentors come from a very diverse group of people. Now these are pastors and leaders from churches across southern Nevada, other leaders in other houses of faith. These are business owners and business leaders. These are school teachers from our school district, professors from the University of Las Vegas, Nevada, right down to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. And I smiled every time I say that because the sheriff has given us an army of volunteer police officers that are serving as mentors. Never before in the history of reentry, nowhere on this planet to this magnitude has law enforcement gotten this involved in mentoring and training people coming home from the prison system. So it’s that kind of wraparound services that we know that helps them to be successful.

Mansa Musa: Now in terms of success ratio, what is y’all’s success rate? Because I know from a personal experience, and like I said, I’m in this environment where people come through there and like we say, you give them a roadmap to be successful. If they stay patient with it and they deviate. And you look up and you go back through the system or they contact you and what happened? Well, they come up with a myriad of reasons. What about in y’all situation? What about that? And then how do y’all deal with people that recidivate?

Jon Ponder: Sure, absolutely. So we are very encouraged. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, their criminal justice division had come in and they wanted to take a look at how well we were doing. And what they did was they took a look at 522 high risk-to-reoffend after that assessment and what they determined of those 522 people that they took a look at, more than 74% of those were successful in gaining full-time employment and sustainable wage jobs. 25% of those were full-time employed after completing the first initial stage of what we do post release. And of those 522 men and women who by every stretch of the statistics should be back on the yard, only 6% of those individuals return back to the prison system. It is something that we are very encouraged by. We know that what it is that we’re doing is working, but to be quite honest with you, I’m not satisfied with that rate.

We’re always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of what it is that we do. So we wanted to take a look at that 6% of people to try to figure out why was it that they were going back. And there was two things that we found, the common thread. The number one reason why people were returning back to the prison system was going back to drugs. This is why we increased our substance abuse treatment and therapy prior to them being released because that’s really where the rubber’s going to hit the road and the benefit of us working with them while they’re inside now. When they get released, we create this continuum of care. They’re not having to go get substance abuse treatment, meet another therapy, it is just that continuum of care. And the other reason why people are continuously going back to the prison system of that pilot group of people was that went back to the old neighborhoods.

We have this saying, and I know you’re familiar with this, that you’re associations determine your destination. If you show me who your friends are, I will tell you exactly who you’re going to be two years down the road. So when someone does recidivate, again, the beauty of us being inside the system, we get to touch that person at every area, at every stage. So they recidivate, do something wrong, parole violation, we can connect with them in the county jail and start wrapping our arms around them. If they have to go back up to prison, then my staff is in the prison waiting for them. So we just start all over with them on the inside, then stay with them, and then they start all over again once they get released.

Mansa Musa: Go ahead. Go ahead John.

Jon Ponder: No, please go ahead.

Mansa Musa: What gives you this enthusiasm? How do you stay focused? How do you maintain this enthusiasm to maintain working with this population? I know for me personally, I get burned out. I don’t get burned out to the point that I’m burned out. I let my flame go down. My passion is not where it be at all the time. One time I might be on 100, next I might be on 15, but I’m still moving forward. What is it that sustains John Ponder and to maintain the belief that it is Hope for Prisoners.

Jon Ponder: So absolutely, I am a man of faith and I understand that I’m walking in what God has called me to do. So I find my strength and my enthusiasm in Him. I get my directions from Him and I always have to stay connected to God. Do I get burnt out? Do I get tired? Absolutely, 100% I do. But it’s important that I have people on my team that I trust, that I’m ever able to delegate things out to, who have the same level of enthusiasm as I do. They’ve climbed up into the vein of what it is that we’re doing and have caught the vision and they stay focused with that. You asked me what it is that gives me hope because I know and understand that if people would just give God enough of their time, God could do some amazing things with their life.

When you’re able to see someone who is at rock bottom in the prison system and we have a chance to walk alongside them and then they’re in the post release phase, for me, it’s like watching the evolution of life. That’s what keeps me going. Take someone from absolutely rock bottom to today, they’re employed as an electrician journeyman and just purchased their home and reconnected with the family and they’re taking vacations. That’s what it is that really, really keeps us going. And the other thing is, I’ll have to tell you a story about how, many years ago when I was founded the organization. I was giving birth to this thing that God impregnated me with. We were ready to get our 5501-3C and we needed to come up with a name for the organization.

And people were asking, “Well, what is going to be the name?” And I felt like God dropped in my spirit that the name is going to be Hope for Prisoners. And the people that were in the world around me at the time had said that, “John, you don’t want to call it Hope for Prisoners because you’re not going to be able to raise money. People are more likely to donate money to get their cat spayed and neutered as opposed to giving it to prisoners.” And they said, “Why do you want to name it, Hope for Prisoners?” And I said, “It’s simple. Number one, I’m doing it because God told me to.” And then I reminded them that the mission of Hope for Prisoners, the mission of our organization 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, they begin to live levels of life that most people only dream of. And when we get them there, then they become the Hope for the Prisoners.

Mansa Musa: I got you. And that’s what opens the door for the segue to my next question is, what do you want to tell people that have the perspective that “You do the crime, you do the time.” And it’s no such thing as any type of repentence that, all right, I hear what you saying, this sound good. But at the same time, crime is on the rise. People still doing these things and I can’t get these blinders off for of me because I’m thinking that it’s a waste of money and a waste of time. How do tell, what do you tell these people that I know you come in contact with, that I know you know exists?

Jon Ponder: Absolutely, 100%. And I’m going to speak from my personal experiences. I did just about 17 years in prison. It wasn’t a straight shot, it was two years here, four years here, six years in county jail and accumulated about seven… Life on the installment plan and I returned back to the community. People, if you take a look at who I was, fully addicted to everything known to man. Gang affiliated, I was a monster. I was a menace to society. But then I respectfully have to say, take a look at my life today. If I could change, someone else can change. And if you could take a look at the vast majority of people that are in our prison systems today, one day they will be coming home. And if we don’t embrace them and provide the support, pour time, effort, energy and resources in them to help them to be productive members of the community, then I think that we are missing the mark.

They’re coming home anyway. And I would rather have them come home and they’re coming home and being in our next door neighbors. They’re in the shopping malls with us and so forth and so on. And what condition do you want that person in? Do you want that person… If you don’t address it, they’re in that never ending cycle of recidivism. Or do we want to do everything we can to assist them after they paid their debt to society?

Come on, they paid the debt, they paid the debt to society and they’re coming home. And I just feel that we, as a community, have an obligation to do everything that we can to help them to be tremendous assets to their home, to their workplace and out there in the community and not a liability. And when we’re able to help them to secure sustainable wage employment, because that’s basically what people really want, to where they can take care of themselves and be able to take care of their family and we would help them to get sustainable wage employment and they start working out in that community, what people really need to think about is that they then become fuel in the economic engine of our communities.

Mansa Musa: Yeah, I like that. John, you had the last word. And I appreciate that articulation and that observation because at the end of the day, unless the person is to be locked away and throw away the key, they are going to return. Whatever state they return, that’s going to happen. And as a civil society, it’s our obligation to look out for the least of these, as a civil society. I think that’s what all of us claim to believe at some point in our lives, we claim to believe in a higher power. We claim to believe, have a certain amount of spiritual decorum. So I think at the end of the day, when we look at with the work that you’re doing and people in similar situations, we recognize that like you say, there is hope for prisoners. Our audience tell our viewers and listeners how they can get in touch with you and how they can support your work.

Jon Ponder: And thank you very much for that. You can reach Hope for Prisoners, certainly visit our website at www.hopefor and it’s “for” Or you can give us a call at 702-586-1371, 702-586-1371. And there are many, many ways that you could support our organization. We do accept donations, small monthly supporters. You can get all the information on our website. Well, the other thing that we do is we look for mentors, not only here in our local community, but we look for mentors all over this country that could become part of our mentoring program. So we train and equip mentors and then they can connect with our people coming home over Zoom, over Teams. So this way, we are here in Las Vegas, Nevada, but you can be in Tupelo, Mississippi. If you had some life experiences that you feel that you’d be able to give back and help someone navigate some challenges you have had in your life, then we would love to be able to have a conversation with you.

Mansa Musa: Thank you, John for joining me today on Rattling the Bars. You definitely rattled the bars today, and I appreciate your taking time out of your busy day. I know you’re busy. Taking out time out of your busy day to really educate our audience on how we… We’re talking about a civil society. We’re not talking about a draconian, dark age unforgiving society. We’re talking about us in a civil society where people like ourselves come out and making amends for what we have done. We make amends in the form of helping the least of these and being the example. You are definitely a good example. Thank you. We ask that you continue to support Rattling the Bars and The Real News. Thank you very much.

Sign Up To Our Daily Digest

Independent media outlets are being suppressed and dropped by corporations like Google, Facebook and Twitter. Sign up for our daily email digest before it’s too late so you don’t miss the latest movement news.