Las Vegas Sun

June 22, 2018

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The case for bringing more educational opportunities to Nevada inmates

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L.E. Baskow

Jon Ponder, founder of Hope for Prisoners, speaks to inmates at the Clark County Detention Center April 14 about his rocky path, eventual success and the power of education.

Jon Ponder paces at the front of the classroom, explaining to the potential students before him what would be expected if they entered the program. The 15 guys staring back are clad in navy blue jumpsuits with fading white letters sprayed on the back — CCDC. They are inmates at the Clark County Detention Center.

What brought them to sit on the cushionless, wooden benches in front of Ponder, once an inmate himself, is the hope to be more. Today, they seek to be students, a label Ponder believes could change their lives.

“You want to reduce recidivism, invest in education,” said Ponder, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Hope for Prisoners, which helps those who’ve been incarcerated through the process of re-entering society.

From the detention center to the Nevada Department of Corrections, state facilities have hosted various efforts over the years to introduce inmates to educational opportunities. From 2002 to 2008, the College of Southern Nevada offered a program geared toward prisoners, but it was scrapped due to budget cuts and the recession.

CSN Prison Education

Jon Ponder with Hope for Prisoners speaks to inmates about his rocky path and eventual success at the Clark County Detention Center on Friday, April 14, 2017. Launch slideshow »

Through a Workforce Connections grant, Hope for Prisoners partnered with CSN and Metro Police to re-establish a pilot program last fall that allows inmates to start coursework for CSN programs such as facilities management, warehouse management, culinary arts, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning certification. After they are released, they can attend classes at a CSN campus to finish their programs. The former CSN program allowed inmates to take a wider selection of classes that allowed them to get an associate’s degree. However, this revamped program focuses on vocational tracks because it leads to better access to employment.

The opportunity attracted Juan Hernandez, a 43-year-old inmate who finished the facilities maintenance coursework last session and is counting the days until his April 24 release. He says he has been in jail more than 20 times and in prison twice, and that this is the first time in his incarceration that education has come up. “If I would have known about a program like this sooner, I probably wouldn’t be sitting (in jail) today,” he said. “I felt like I was drowning, and this has been a lifesaver.”

Hernandez will continue to get help through Hope for Prisoners after his release. Ponder is working to find him further training and employment, and Hernandez plans to enroll in CSN classes as soon as he can.

Before this new class embarks on its coursework, Ponder sits down on the bench, speaking on their level, and lays out the rules: If you want to live the life you had before, don’t bother coming into this program.

Ponder said 54 inmates have accepted his proposal. An estimated 36 more will go through by the end of Hope for Prisoners’ fiscal year June 30. But this is just one program happening at one facility in Nevada.

David Tristan, deputy director of programs for the Nevada Department of Corrections, said it has been looking at ways to improve educational opportunities for inmates, as Nevada recently received a $1 million Second Chance grant to aid in making changes. Tristan said the department was chosen because of its comprehensive plan for re-entry, which included partnerships with UNLV and UNR.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Tristan said. “The word ‘penitentiary’ comes from the idea that people would go into a cell in silence and seek penance. We know now that doesn’t work. The criminal justice system has been moving forward leaps and bounds. It’s time Nevada moves forward in line with national standards.”

The department has looked at evidence-based programming around the country to see what reduces recidivism rates. As Ponder said, access to education is on that list.

But the department has limited space for classrooms due to overcrowding. And Tristan said that inmates often have to choose between classes or substance-abuse treatment groups because program times coincide. However, he thinks some issues could be resolved by Nevada Senate Bill 306, sponsored by Sen. Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas.

During the bill hearing April 4, Ford explained the legislation to the Senate Judiciary Committee. One section expands usage of tablets by prisoners, which would open up the opportunity for inmates to study remotely, addressing both space and scheduling constraints. But the crux of the proposed legislation is to enhance vocational training or educational opportunities for soon-to-be-released inmates.

If SB306 is approved, the Nevada Department of Corrections would take 50 women from Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center and 50 men from High Desert State Prison to establish a pilot program through July 2019. CSN would administer credit-bearing degree and pre-apprenticeship tracks, which inmates could complete upon release (Tristan said if they enrolled with a community partner such as Hope for Prisoners, they wouldn’t have to pay for continuing classes). Risk assessments would determine if inmates qualified, based on recent disciplinary actions and time needed to complete the program prior to release.

Though it comes with a $300,000 fiscal note, Ford said this would save the state money in the long run, considering it could keep former inmates from reoffending.

Strong testimony for the power of education to change lives comes from former inmates Jason Speer and Robert Giroux, thirtysomethings who went through Hope for Prisoners’ first cohort. “This felt like a way out,” Speer said.

Both men had been in and out of jail. Giroux’s last stint began in April 2016, while Speer landed in the detention center that October. Speer said a corrections officer handed him a packet for the Hope For Prisoners program.

“I’m still asking, why was I picked?” he said. “Maybe it was a higher power at work.”

Giroux was referred into the program too. “We went from sitting around in our cells playing card games or reading Dean Koontz novels to quizzing each other on the course material,” he said. “It didn’t feel overwhelming to start the program. It felt inspiring, honestly. You started imagining what life could become.”

Through the instruction of CSN adjunct professor Cliff Pendergraft, a long-time HVAC professional, Giroux and Speer completed the four-week course and walked out of the classroom — and later the detention center — ready to build their new lives.

Once classes are available, they plan to complete their certification at CSN. For now, Giroux is a maintenance technician and Speer is a property manager.

“I don’t know where I’d be without this,” Giroux said. “That’s a big, scary question mark.”

As for the next CCDC class, it’s up to them.

“Who is ready to say, ‘Jon, I’m ready to change?’ ” asked Johnny Morales, a motivational coach with Hope for Prisoners, at the end of the April orientation. The response wasn’t as loud as anticipated, so they were asked to try again. This time, the inmates turned to Ponder, and with a little more volume they said: “Jon, I’m ready to change.”

“You are no longer in jail now,” Morales said. “Now, you’re in school.”