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October 22, 2014

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Re-entry programs give former prisoners hope in the real world

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Leila Navidi

Guy Moore works as a chef at the Westside Bistro in Las Vegas on Wednesday, August 22, 2012.

Guy Moore

Guy Moore works as a chef at the Westside Bistro in Las Vegas on Wednesday, August 22, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Watch KSNV reporter Marie Mortera’s story about this topic at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Channel 3.

Guy Moore knows the cost of a bad decision.

It started with a jewelry theft topping $5,000. A 10-month prison term followed. During that time, he lived in constant fear of violence in a 10-by-8 cell.

Then came July 28, 2011. That was the now 48-year-old’s release date from High Desert State Prison, or, as he says, “a day you don’t forget.”

Moore entered a Las Vegas parole and probation office with a fresh mindset and vowed to change his course in life.

But there was a problem.

His prison term resulted in the loss of his job, car, home, family — “pretty much everything,” he said.

It’s a story police and court officials say they hear time and again: former inmates re-entering society with little direction and even fewer resources. They have scant cash, dubious housing and lack of proper identification.

“The majority of people really do want to change,” said Jon Ponder, founder of Hope for Prisoners, a nonprofit that helps ex-offenders transition into society. “They have no idea how to do it.”

The predicament can nudge former inmates back into a life of crime, creating a revolving door of offenders cycling in and out of prison, officials said.

A study released last year by the nonpartisan Pew Center found that more than 40 percent of offenders nationwide returned to state prison within three years of their release. In Nevada, recidivism hovers just above 26 percent — a figure also measured by offenders who returned to state prison within three years, said Brian Connett, deputy director of the Nevada Department of Corrections.

Public safety officials in Las Vegas, however, presume the percentage could be at least double because it doesn’t account for offenders returning to city or county jails.

“It’s very common for someone who gets out of prison to go back and stay with a friend or put themselves in a situation that is not very healthy,” said Judge Linda Bell, who recently took over Clark County District Court’s specialty courts. “They have no tools.”

The recidivism rate has a definite impact on taxpayers’ pocketbooks. In Nevada, the average annual cost per inmate is $20,656, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

Moore resurrected his life with the help of the Las Vegas Urban League’s RExO Champs, a program designed to aid recently released offenders.

Now Moore works at the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas as a chef in its Westside Bistro. He received funding through the Urban League to attend the Culinary Academy and was hired a few months later.

Although he previously worked in the Los Angeles area catering Hollywood events, Moore felt he needed a way to jump-start his career in Las Vegas, given his felony conviction.

“To come out of prison and blend back into society, well, here in Las Vegas, it’s a little tough,” he said. “A lot of people come to this town — a lot of money — and they need people they can trust. They have a lot at stake here.”

Re-entry advocates in Las Vegas said it’s a gradual process to gain the trust of local employers — made doubly hard by an excess of talented people who find themselves unemployed because of the economy.

Chad Baker, a Metro Police officer in West Las Vegas, has been mentoring former inmates for two years at Urban League, 1024 W. Owens Ave. He grew frustrated arresting the same people all the time in the department’s Bolden Area Command.

As a mentor, Baker seeks to mend relationships with ex-offenders and help them find employment at nearby businesses, such as grocery stores.

“It’s one thing for an ex-offender to go into a business to try to get a job,” he said. “It’s another when an ex-offender walks in while a Metro Police officer is by their side.”

It’s not always an easy sell, though.

“They hear the ex-felon part and they cringe,” Baker said.

He tries to reassure owners by telling them he only advocates for people he feels will live up to his recommendation.

Hope for Prisoners, which relies on donations, has adopted a similar practice, Ponder said. His 18-month program starts with a prevocational workshop addressing everything from the importance of a learning attitude to dressing for success.

From there, each offender receives a mentor who keeps tabs on his or her progress with employers. Hope for Prisoners has about 160 volunteers from faith-based communities who serve as mentors, Ponder said.

“We can put an individual in a class, but if we don’t come alongside that individual and help them to walk out what he’s just learned, we’ve done absolutely nothing,” he said.

Ponder credits his time served in federal prison for a bank robbery with helping him turn his life around and understand what inmates need for successful transitions into society.

“My entire time in prison, I didn’t go to prison,” he said. “I went to school. I used every bit of time in prison to learn and grow.”

Ponder moved back to Las Vegas and created Hope for Prisoners as soon as he was released in 2009 from a maximum-security federal prison in Pennsylvania. Of the 210 offenders who attended the prevocational workshop, 61 percent now have full-time jobs, he said.

Long-term success ultimately hinges on a person’s desire to change, said John Butler, outreach coordinator for the Urban League’s RExO Champs program.

“They have to be able to obtain and secure (jobs) on their own, which is part of that self-sufficiency,” he said. “We guide and advocate for them.”

One re-entry program, however, is on the brink of extinction. Clark County’s Reentry Court — a special program similar to Drug Court — no longer has funding, Bell said.

Money for Reentry Court previously had come from Clark County’s specialty courts fund, which is separate from the county’s general fund, said Steven Roll, specialty courts manager. A tighter budget in fiscal year 2012, which ended in June, led to the elimination of funding for Re-entry Court. Future funding likely would need to come from the Administrative Office of the Courts or the Nevada Department of Corrections, Roll said.

Because it’s a judicial program, participants in Reentry Court face an immediate return to custody if they violate certain terms or conditions.

“In Clark County, the program will be eliminated if a funding source cannot be worked out,” Bell said. “That would be terrible.”

Bell described re-entry programs as a win-win for the community. It would ease jail and prison overcrowding while reducing crime, she said.

“I think it’s a really important issue,” said Bell, a public defender before becoming a judge. “Very little attention is paid to it. We can’t just hope for a better outcome unless we start doing something differently.”

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  1. As a former Nevada corrections officer the system in general is all screwed up. There is no mission for the Nevada department of Corrections or the Parole and Probation. The prisoner is only given gate money and or 30 days of "meds" if they have a medical situation.

    It is unfortunate that many of the prisoners go back for some case "mistakes" mostly small infractions. Society as a whole even on the best of times is hard for those folks who want to make a real change. Now a days they are not even given a second chance.

    The legislature needs to form a joint committee on how to get things going. We as a state can not afford to keep the people behinds the gates for long periods of times.

  2. Mr. Clarke,

    You are correct, more could and should be done. Many will say it is their mistakes and they should be the one to pay the price. Fact is with a bit of help most can and will become productive members of our community. Some never will.

    It all takes money. Many think changes are needed and are correct but most want someone else to pick up the tab for all of it.

    Would be nice to see a good "jobs" program in our jails and prisons so that the inmates could earn money that is banked away until they are released. Many return to crime because they have nothing when they get out. Let them earn and many will not return.

    The programs in the article try and they function by those that feel the desire giving of their time and money. That is a good start. The court program is going to end because of lack of funds.

    Money is not the total answer but it helps get over some of the road blocks that they run into when they are released.

  3. Isn't the problem that they get a low wage job, say 9 bucks an hour, and get sick of working for next to nothing? Yes, they're working, but why get out of bed in the morning, realizing that selling drugs will get them more money in an hour than a week at Jack in the Box? Education is the key, but for the vast majority, it's too late. Back to the slammer time for most.

  4. You can live better on Welfare than working--so many convicts, or ex-cons, find a semi-significant other, such as a "girlfriend" with kids who is receiving assistance. They get the free housing, food stamps, lihea utilities, child care.... And thus, generations of abuse continue as their kids grow up thinking this is normal or OK--to live off others by what is given and what they can take--crime continues at their leisure.
    I doubt that we can find funding to add programs for convicts. Perhaps we need to cut social welfare programs so it is not so lucrative to live off the lamb rather than working for a living.

  5. Ms. Valley, you struck a nerve with your comment on "lost everything" when incarcerated. True and it would be difficult to re-acquire. During the past week I was again approached to provide for a mother and son who "lost everything" a few months ago. It seems she was evicted for non payment of rent and took what she could carry. Now the social service agencies have said she's been "set up" one too many times. When finally the government turns you away, you still turn to others to GIVE you furniture for "my son." Before I digress too much, what are your thoughts on the failure of K-12 to provide classes on BASIC LIFE SKILLS--the sort of class that's mandatory when you sign up for TANF welfare? What I'm getting at is that K-12 must recognize that many students do NOT have good parental influence and do NOT KNOW THEIR OPTIONS. So, a percentage of them wind up in jail. Another percentage on the streets. Another percentage suffer thru and rely on friends and relatives until they find work. Maybe upon arrest, these people could recognize what's going on and call Salvation Army (or other non profit or friends) to pick up everything they're losing so they can provide to the people being released from prison. Perhaps even Salvation Army would recognize that they'll need the help when released.