Growing Up in Community
Jon Ponder understands from personal experience that returning citizens and law enforcement must be in community with one another for both of them to thrive like never before. He shared how he’s cultivated an extraordinary partnership where 135 law enforcement officers are voluntarily mentoring formerly incarcerated Nevadans.
The partnership between Las Vegas law enforcement and Ponder’s nonprofit Hope for Prisoners is the largest of its kind in the world.
“It comes down to these two words, unprecedented partnerships – unprecedented partnerships of community coming together, like never before, for one goal in mind: To be able to wrap our arms around the men and women that are coming home,” he said.
Hope for Prisoners’ law enforcement partnership was birthed from Jon’s own friendship with the FBI agent who arrested him, Richard Beasley.
Jon’s Story: Befriending his arresting officer
“I’ll scream from the rooftops that the FBI agent who arrested me is literally my best friend.” Jon Ponder said.
As Officer Beasley was driving Jon to prison for a bank robbery he committed, Beasley stopped to get him a cup of coffee and a donut and talk with him. This moment sparked what would become a decades-long friendship.
After his sentencing, Jon thanked Officer Beasley by gifting him a necktie and Beasley made sure to call Jon and keep in touch with him while he was in prison.
HOW JON PONDER FOUND HOPE IN PRISON
“When I was at the federal halfway house in Vegas, after being released, on my second day, all of a sudden I get called up front,” Jon said. “And when I went up to the front, I saw agent Beasley there and he was like, ‘Hey, Jon, how are you doing? Welcome home.’ And then he leaned into me and he said: ‘I just want to let you know, my wife and I have been praying for you.’”
“He [Officer Beasley] saved my life and put me on this trajectory to who I am today.”
Their friendship has even extended to include their families.
“One of the greatest benefits of that friendship is that his wife knows my wife, my children call him Uncle Rich,” Jon said. “So they’re at my house. I’m at their house. And I love it that my children understand that because it shows a story of redemption that gets passed off to them. And one day they will be able to share that story,” he said.
“And I thought: how could we do this same thing with other law enforcement?”
Officer Beasley and Jon’s friendship was a key model and framework that inspired similar relationships for Hope for Prisoner’s clients and their mentors. Beasley introduced Jon to other law enforcement officers and over time, officers, attorneys and judges all agreed to mentor Hope for Prisoners clients.
“And there are many, many success stories to where arresting officers from 15, 16 and 17 years earlier are in a relationship now with the people that they locked up,” Jon said.
Many of those officers also help with Hope for Prisoners’ pre-vocational training, sharing things that they learned in their own police training.
“We have police officers who come in and they train leadership principles. They train communication skills and personality type,” Jon said. “All those things that internally our police department trains other police officers to help them to be successful, that is the level of training that they extend back to the formerly incarcerated individuals.”
Changing the culture of law enforcement
This level of partnership between community members and law enforcement allows both groups to humanize each other after recent years of civil unrest and tension.
“People don’t trust police,” Jon said. “But the reason why they don’t trust police is that they’re not in a relationship with the police. In what relationship could you ever establish trust, unless there’s complete transparency and a realization we have more in common than we do different.”
JON’S TIPS ON CHOOSING THE RIGHT STAKEHOLDERS
These relationships with the community have also allowed law enforcement officers to change their perceptions of the formerly incarcerated.
“The thing that I’m equally excited about is that this level of partnership is forcing men and women from law enforcement to view people who are coming home from the prison system after they paid their debt to society, and are truly fighting for a second chance, from a whole nother set of lenses,” Jon said.
Creating opportunities for interaction and relationship-building between law enforcement officers and citizens, as Hope for Prisoners has, builds trust and transparency that enables communities to flourish to their fullest potential.
Why “Dwight’s” arresting officer took leave to care for Dwight’s family
Jon Ponder has seen thousands of lives changed in the 11 years he has led Hope for Prisoners, but one story in particular, Dwight’s, shows why partnership with law enforcement is so crucial to successful reentry. (“Dwight” is a pseudonym to protect the identity of this Hope for Prisoners graduate.)
Jon met Dwight while they were both incarcerated. Before Dwight was released, Jon invited him to attend some Hope for Prisoners sessions to see if he was interested in becoming a client. During one group, Dwight crossed paths with his arresting officer from 17 years earlier, and the anger he felt that whole time came to the surface. He walked out.
Through working with Jon, Dwight was able to let go of his anger towards the officer that he had held onto for over a decade.
“He stood in the middle of the floor in front of everybody and says ‘Hey, Officer Thacker. It’s me, Dwight.’ And they met in the middle of the floor and for whatever reason, Dwight dropped his head, came into the middle of the room and began to embrace Thacker, crying. His [Thacker’s] bulletproof vest was up against Dwight’s chest, his [Dwight’s] arm resting on the officer’s gun. What a beautiful story of redemption,” Jon said.
Dwight got married before he was released from prison and on his graduation day from Hope for Prisoners, he was offered a great job. But a few weeks later, his wife became ill and was in the ICU. Since Dwight was on parole, he couldn’t leave his job. Hearing about the situation, Officer Thacker, who was his mentor, took an indefinite leave of absence.
“He went down to the hospital and sat outside Dwight’s wife’s hospital door. And as the doctors were giving reports on the condition of his wife, he was sending text messages to Dwight out in the field. And he did that for six and a half weeks.” Jon said. “This was a police officer who did this for a formerly incarcerated person who he arrested and helped send to prison all those years ago. But now, they’re best friends.”
Dwight’s story shows not only the power of redemption and relationship, but the importance of community for individual success. Hope for Prisoners transformational model of unprecedented partnerships creates that support system for all their clients which is why they have been so successful in guiding nearly 4,700 to successfully reenter their communities.