Hoping for Prisoners graduates say the Las Vegas program makes a distinction

Publisher’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series on Hope for Prisoners, a program with spiritual roots designed to help those who have given time to change their lives.

Freddy Duarte and Lateefa Starks have a lot in common. Both spent years in prison and straightened their lives through the nonprofit Hope for Prisoners founded by former ex-perpetrator Jon Ponder.

Located at 3430 E. Flamingo Road, the program has completed around 1,300 since the doors opened in 2009.

“I spent eight years in prison from 2006 to 2014,” recalls Starks, a former Head Start teacher convicted of robbery conspiracy. “I was engaged to a young man whose boyfriend embroiled me in one night of their bad behavior.”

Starks, who spent five of her years at the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center in north Las Vegas before completing her sentence at the Jean Conservation Center, said prisoners are frequently written off, resulting in high relapse rates.

Starks is now attending Lincoln Christian University in Las Vegas and is expected to graduate in 2018.

“Hoping for prisoners enables people to make changes through their support groups,” said Starks. “It allows you to grow by leaps and bounds.”

Starks said she used her prison experience to change her life.

“I haven’t even known anyone who’s been in prison before,” she recalled. “I had no tangible understanding of what it was. There are two styles of life: the same without changes, or you can be what you want.

“Going to jail was a jerk, but I wouldn’t trade the years I spent in jail for anything. You have the opportunity to be anything you wanted to be before. You have the chance to start over. “

Starks, who moved to Las Vegas in 2002, said she gave her life to Christ when she was only 15 years old.

“I carried a Bible with me,” she said. “Going to jail was part of my spiritual journey.

“I gave classes in prison. Since I’ve been out of prison, I’ve been able to teach life skills classes. While I was in prison, I was also a pastor. I could be disciplined by so many volunteers who came in to help me love Jesus. The only way to be special is to be a kind, loving person. “

Duarte, a 38-year-old graduate of Cimarron Memorial High School, was a habitual felon who served more than 11 years in prison. His last crime occurred when he broke into a federal judge’s home.

“I heard about Hope for Prisoners from a couple of friends about two and a half years ago,” Duarte explained, adding that alcohol and meth played a role in his problems. “I saw what it did for her and I knew I wanted to do the same. However, I didn’t know how to go from point A to point B. “

Ponder agreed to meet with Duarte, who was 26 years old when he went to prison.

“Jon wanted me to sign up for the program,” recalls Duarte, who now works as a cook. “He wanted to give me the best of the best and encouraged me to immerse myself. I had to start at the bottom and now I want to keep growing and paying off to the next person who was in the same situation as me. “

Ponder’s program was the answer to correcting a bad situation.

“The hope for prisoners was great,” said Duarte. “I took a finance class to manage my money for the rest of my life. I have also been provided a mentor who will be with me for the next 18 months, or the rest of my life if necessary. “

Hope for Prisoners encourages ex-convicts to reconcile with family members, and specifically to address child support.

“I’m starting where I left off,” said Duarte, noting that he has also attended parenting courses. “It feels so good not to be running away from the law and in fact I have some Metro officers who are now my friends. It’s amazing how I feel now. “

Hope for Prisoners proponents include former Sheriff Bill Young, a fifth-generation Nevadan native who retired from the Metropolitan Police Department in 2007. He said programs like Hope for Prisoners could make a world of difference in ripped neighborhoods like Ferguson, Mo. and Baltimore

“After retiring from law enforcement, I found that there was a link between relapse and the lack of a plan, job, or opportunity to live on a released person,” Young said. “I found out about this group when a friend called me after I was released from prison. He had no way of making a living. I saw him succeed through determination. He was a graduate of Hope for Prisoners. “

The deal is especially rewarding, said Young, now senior vice president of security and oversight at Station Casinos.

“To see these people embrace law enforcement is really amazing,” added Young. “You’ve spent so much of your life running away from the police and suddenly you’re hugging the people who arrested you. Instead of running away, they run towards each other to shake hands or to hug each other. “

The Rev. Bonnie Polley of Christ Church, bishop and chaplain of the Clark County Detention Center, is known to many inmates. She also has a strong belief in Hope for Prisoners, where she serves on the advisory board.

“It’s wonderful,” said Polley, a 52-year-old southern Nevada resident who has worked at the detention center for 34 years. “I’ve been involved in several re-entry programs and this is the best I’ve ever seen.”

For more information about Hope for Prisoners, call 702-586-1371 or visit www.hopeforprisoners.org.

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