AROUND THE BLOCK BUT DIDN’T STAY THERE
Faith in hand, Jon Ponder has graduated over 2,000 ex-offenders from the nonprofit jobs and re-entry program he founded in 2009. Hope for Prisoners combines life skills training, job readiness and career planning classes with 18 months of mentorship and follow-up services. To mark the importance of community involvement in offering new lives and new possibilities, graduation ceremonies are held at Las Vegas Metro Headquarters before a supportive audience of officers, judges, family and friends. Over a decade since his own federal conviction, Ponder has gained national recognition advising alternatives to prison programs, and in 2018 became a guest of the White House for its National Day of Prayer.
I’m originally from New York, born and raised — grew up the product of a single parent home. My mom did the best she could raising five little knucklehead boys and one little knucklehead girl. Originally moved out to Las Vegas in 1989. Let me back up a little bit. When I was in New York, I started getting in trouble, getting arrested for different things. I wound up catching my first felony when I was sixteen years old and life kind of spiraled out of control from there. My mom had retired and moved out here. My brothers and I were taking turns coming out to check on Mom, and one by one they came out here to visit her, came back home and said, “I’m moving to Vegas.” They left me in New York by myself for about two years. It was a combination of being sick and tired of being sick and tired, and missing my family that led me to move out here to be close to them. It was almost as if I came to escape New York, but I came out to Las Vegas and all those things that the city is made famous for had become a very integral part of my life, and I had become an integral part of it. You know how they say people from New York, we go a thousand miles an hour standing still? It was almost as if I just came out here and started doing stuff really, really fast. Got into the wrong life. Started using drugs and things of that nature. A little bit more crime, arrested several more times, then got arrested and sent to a United States Federal penitentiary. That was 2004. The reason why I share very transparently the stories of the good and the bad is because I think that when people who we’re trying to help understand I’ve been where I have been — I’ve been where they have been — and when they see people like myself come up out of there, just start living life on a whole ‘nother level, then I become a reference point. I can identify with where they’re at. I’ve been there, done that. Been around the block but I didn’t stay there. I tell people when I arrived to the prison, I was on that bus and the gigantic fifty-foot wall opened up, I changed the words and instead of it saying, “Maximum Security United States Federal Institution,” it said, “Maximum Security Learning Institution.” I went up in there and I went to school. In that environment, I became a student, number one of the Bible. I accepted it; it was like I went to Bible college. I studied the principles of business and I studied psychology. In an effort to understand why Jon Ponder did all the things that Jon Ponder did, I wanted to understand the details of why people do what people do. I would not even begin to tell you the things, couldn’t adequately describe what goes on inside those walls. It was times when I was there when I honestly did not think I was going to make it home. But I trusted God. I studied and there came a point on the journey where God began to teach me not only things I needed to learn, but really showed me who I am — who He created me to be. I began to understand, I am not the name the streets gave me. I am not the name the homies thought that I was. I am who God says that I am. And I can do everything He says I can do. Inside that environment, it was an awakening that took place. For the first time in years, I’m on the inside, but I’m on the outside looking in. And I’m seeing different things. I’m seeing patterns inside the prison system that are creating habits that are the exact opposite of successful reentry. I’m watching people who would leave prison and then come right back. You leave and you come right back, but I know the reason why is that you’re stuck in a pattern. Because you kept that pattern of behavior for three or four times a day for ten years, it’s impossible for you to come home and be a productive member of your community. Those are the things I just really wanted to try to interrupt — that viscous cycle of recidivism. Learning as much as I can and praying, that’s when God dropped in my spirit, Hope for Prisoners. He hadn’t given me the name yet, just the desire to create something that’s going to help people, to give birth to this thing God gave to me.