Although Jon Ponder earned his first pair of handcuffs at the tender age of 12 years old, he has since helped over 4,700 formerly incarcerated Americans successfully reenter their communities with only an 6% recidivism rate. Compared to the national average of 67%, his nonprofit Hope for Prisoners is over 10 times better than the status quo. Jon shared what helped him turn his life around and how he helps others with their redemption stories.
Finding trouble in the streets
As the son of a single mom in the inner-city of New York, Jon Ponder and his siblings took to the streets to pass the time. “My mother was strong, but she wasn’t able to keep us out of the gangs and off of the streets. And they were violent streets,” he said. The streets led to drugs. Drugs led to gangs and criminal activity. Since gang life and arrests were commonplace among Jon’s family members, he felt, “it was the norm.”
At the age of 38, he received his third felony condition for a series of bank robberies and faced up to 23 years in prison.
Jon’s redemption story
As Jon Ponder was getting ready to face the judge who could sentence him to 23 years in prison, he felt sick and afraid. So Jon turned to his faith, which he had just found in his cell. He asked God to take the seat of the judge and consider giving him a lighter sentence than what was called for, promising to spend the rest of his life serving him regardless.
“My judge was Jay C. Mahan. He took his glasses off and said ‘Mr. Ponder, I’ve never heard anyone say what you just said. I don’t know why I’m going to do this, but I’m not going to give you what you deserve,’” Jon recalled. “My God showed up. He answered my prayers.” He was sentenced to only five years in a maximum security prison.
Finding hope behind bars
In spite of his prison’s toxic environment, Jon found wisdom there too.
“It was a mentor of mine. He had served 36 years on his 1000-year sentence. And one day, we were sitting down at a table in the recreation yard. He said to me: ‘Do you realize that if a man was to study, one subject, for one hour, every day, for over the course of a five-year period, he will have become an expert on the subject?’” Jon said.
“And it hit me in the head like a ton of bricks. ‘What do you want to become an expert at?’” That encounter helped Jon realize that his purpose was to help returning citizens, as he was about to be, to never re-offend again and to live levels of life they never dreamed of before.
Creating a community of hope
After his release, Jon Ponder founded Hope for Prisoners to instill real hope for returning citizens. It’s “real” hope because their immensely practical programs are based on his own reentry experience.
“Speaking from my own personal experiences, we know that there are four pillars that we need to address when men and women return to our community. We need to address the need for education, employment, housing and transportation. These are some of the things that I had to personally tackle when I had come home from prison,” he said.
Given many of their clients had been in prison for decades, they provide training as basic as how to use email. But one of their most powerful programs is where fellow Nevadans, including law enforcement, judicial officials, employers and church leaders, provide mentorship to the incarcerated 18 months before they are released from prison and at least 18 months after their release.
“We are so excited that we have the ability to go in and develop relationships with them. So it’s life rubbing up against life,” Jon said. “So when they come home, they’re not coming home to some unfamiliar organization. They are coming home to a family that has walked with them at least up to 18 months while they’ve been inside [prison]. And the uniqueness of what we do is that when they get released, we’ve created like this continuum of care.”
And other cities across the country are taking notice. Community leaders in Milwaukee flew Jon there to learn more about his program and how they could replicate his success. Those conversations sparked them to start a sister organization with the same model, Partners in Hope. Jon’s secret to success? For him, it’s all about mentorship and community.
“I would not be who I am today without community. I had to surround myself with people that would walk with me to help me to navigate those different challenges,” he said. “That mechanism that worked so successfully for me, is what we replicated for the other men and women coming home from the prison system. And that is why mentoring is so extremely, extremely important. I cannot, I cannot stress it enough.”