Arrested and dragged kicking and fighting all the way to solitary confinement, he awaited a court date and a possible 23-year prison sentence.
“One day, a chaplain slipped a Bible through the slot in my door, along with another book, ‘Pursuit of His Presence’ by Kenneth and Gloria Copeland,” he told a reporter for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, Marie Rohde. Then a fellow prisoner gave him a radio that tuned in only to a Christian station. “One night, I heard Billy Graham preach on the Prodigal Son,” Ponder says. “At that point, I became a Christian and prayed the sinner’s prayer.”
Ponder says he was touched by the hand of God while in that cell in 2004. He got six years in prison but also a new purpose in life — the idea for Hope for Prisoners, an intensive 18-month Las Vegas program that prepares ex-inmates for rejoining society and also helps bridge the chasm between law enforcement and the community.
In Nevada, conservatives and liberals alike have found hope in Ponder’s private-public partnership that draws heavily on volunteer mentors. At a July graduation ceremony at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, ex-offenders were surrounded by some of the very officers who arrested them, the district attorneys who prosecuted them and the judges who sentenced them.
The program includes job training, mentoring and character development. Supported chiefly by donations, the program is working. A University of Nevada-Las Vegas study found that of 522 participants who had completed the voluntary program’s job readiness course, an astonishing 94% had not returned to jail; most were working, paying taxes and supporting their families.
Ponder’s story is fascinating, and he will tell it at a Feb. 14 event in Milwaukee sponsored by WPRI. He will be joined by current and former LVMPD members as well as Bob Woodson, founder of the Woodson Center. Woodson is one of America’s leading voices on helping impoverished communities be agents of their own uplift and is a key adviser to House Speaker Paul Ryan.
“If we can break the cycle of recidivism and poverty, then these people can rebuild their own lives, redeem themselves. Then they are better off, society is better off — and, oh, by the way, the taxpayer is better off at the end of the day,” Ryan said in an interview with WPRI.
Woodson says if a program like Hope for Prisoners can work in Las Vegas, it can work elsewhere. But success can only come with involvement by local groups and people who are not always used to working together.
It is our hope that the event on Feb. 14 will be a beginning.
For more information about “Unlocking Potential,” the Feb. 14 event, click here. All are welcome.