Lidia Landis’ face welled up with tears as she recalled her experience in jail. Sentenced to two years, Landis spent 5 months in Duval County lockup and a year inside Montgomery County Prison, which she called the “Pea Farm.”
Landis said she spent most of her time in prison doing as much work as possible. “I did whatever I could to stay busy because if I didn’t I would go crazy. I can see why people go crazy and end up in the mental part of jail-which I didn’t want to end up in…because you are stripped naked and all you have is a blanket. I felt for a lot of those ladies,” she said. Landis said the prison experience was not something that left her rehabilitated, but instead she implied that the prison system was quite definitely focused on punishment. “At the worst times inside,” Landis said “you just felt like an animal.”
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. According to statistics from the Bureau of Justice The U.S. rate is 500 prisoners per 100,000 residents. After prisoners are released the majority have to reenter into society and this can be a huge struggle for many of them due to the way the system is set up.
Operation New Hope is a local community development corporation that is attempting to address this issue- and they are making real progress. Their Ready 4 Work program is what helped Landis overcome some serious obstacles after leaving prison.
Upon her release, Landis found herself without a job or a home. The one thing that remained in her life was her husband, who stood by her, which is something Landis credited as one of her main sources of strength during this period.
Landis was previously an accountant and holds a college degree but as soon as she was released as a felon any job prospects that fit her level of qualifications were gone- in fact all of her job prospects were slim. It was something Landis said was incredibly frustrating due to the fact that the terms of her probation stipulated she find a job immediately and that she start paying a sizeable fine imposed upon her by the court.
After tirelessly looking for jobs for months, Landis found a few at fast food places which offered her very few hours and were far away from her home. Landis needed something more than this to live on. Then she remembered rumors going around prison of a place that helped offenders: Operation New Hope.
It was upon entering the doors of their downtown Jacksonville office that she finally felt a real sense of zeal for her future. On her first day during her intake she was told, “There’s hope, just believe in yourself.”
An entire team was devoted to helping Landis find acceptable employment. Landis had access to counselors who advised her on everything from interviewing skills to professional social media use. Landis was also given a life coach and sent to classes to help her regain some of her dignity and self confidence. “They brought in other people who just encourage you. Some of them were ex felons themselves and they’re doing great. To look at other people they have helped along the way and having them come in and talk to the class it made me think: Yes I can live again and i’m not going to be punished for the rest of my life,” she said.
Landis is now employed full time at a desk job which is suited to her skill set and it is one she enjoys. “All I can say is when you get out of jail your mindset is set one way…and it is scary to come back out. You are a different person, mentally it changes you and it feels like there is really no support. People come out of jail and they do want to change but they end up having to go back to the way they were. Operation New Hope… I see why they call it new hope because honestly it is giving people a second chance. It gave me a second chance and to tell you the truth I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for them,” she said.
After spending an afternoon with their CEO and Founder Kevin Gay, it is obvious from everything he said and the manner in which he said it that he is an authentically compassionate man-and that was his driving force for creating the business. This attitude is something he has infused into the entire company.
“We have developed a really sophisticated system here in what we do…different than anything that I think you’ll see,” he said.
Gay has used his background in the corporate world as a tool for developing the Ready 4 Work Program.“The folks who walk through that door are obviously the reason why we live and breathe …but I knew if we were really going to get a buy in from the employment world I really needed to make sure I knew every single issue that employers would want to address in order for us to bring somebody to them,” he said.
In 2005 Gay ran a focus group he said because “if we were going to access the employment scale of the city it had to be multiple industries, a broader landscape of employers.” They brought in 10 of the nation’s top CEOs. “it was really hilarious to be quite honest with you because our facilitator asked them: ‘would any of you hire a bunch of ex-cons?’ (using terminology I don’t like because I don’t like that term… And they all started laughing. But then the facilitator said ‘Ok well, lean back in your chair for a minute and take a deep breath and think: what would it need to look like in order for you to hire them?’ And “I think it was Bill Gates who said ‘well you know what’s important for me…is someone to be on time. If someone comes in on time every day I would be willing to talk to them.”
The rest of the CEOs followed with suggestions and thus[b] Gay began to assemble the core of the philosophy behind the Ready 4 Work Program which was to build a curriculum that addressed any concerns employers might have about hiring someone who has been to jail.
In Jacksonville the rising crime rate has been an issue that has been of great concern for the city and it is something Mayor Lenny Curry is attempting to address by a revamping of the Jax Journey Anti-Crime Initiative.
Now, with Curry’s new investment of Jax Journey dollars, Operation New Hope has been able to add to their resources and continue to create new and more refined programs for ex offenders and their families such as a program for the children of ex-offenders and one for fathers in prison.
“Now as we get more and more funding and have more and more resources we feel we are really able to address multiple factors about individuals and their records… we are getting better and better,” said Gay.
Gay explains his company offers government a real solution to the issue. “They see the return on investment when we do this right. And we have been able to blend different funding sources to really make this effective.”
The Ready 4 Work Program has also had an impact upon another area the Jax Journey Initiative is focused on: youth crime and prevention. One evening, this was seen firsthand.
The wide eyed grin on Jarvis Guthrie’s face reveals everything one would need to know about the state of his current life. Tonight Guthrie is still bright and fresh faced even after working all day outdoors at his new job at a roofing company. The job, which he adores, is one reason he is now looking towards a future filled with dreams of college and owning a business of his own. Guthrie is only 20 but looks [c]slightly younger, and it is hard to believe that less than a year ago he had lost all hope of having any type of viable future due to his criminal record.
Guthrie was sent to prison after being in possession of a gun while out drinking with friends.The gun was not intended for violent purposes but was more for show amongst the group of teens. Guthrie was changed with possession of a firearm and resisting arrest. He was sent to Duval County lockup for 3 months. Guthrie didn’t hesitate to say that prison was “hell on earth.” He said when he got out he thought “the worst” about his future. His dreams of going to college were squashed.
However Guthrie quickly found a job upon completing 3 weeks of the Ready 4 Work Program at Operation New Hope. “I went to the interview and I did fantastic. In fact the boss who hired me said ‘I don’t usually start people off at 10 dollars an hour but you know what…I like you! I am going to start you off at 10 dollars and hour!’ and I have been there ever since. I am getting a raise and everything is just wonderful now…I feel more comfortable that now, if I ever do lose this job, I can apply myself and know how to actually be a hit at interviews and talk to people with respect… it is just amazing,” he says.
Guthrie also does plan on going to college and majoring in business management, “I want to open my own landscaping business. That has always been a dream,” he says. In fact he has already started his own pool cleaning business and plans to hire other young people when he gets it off the ground, “that’s what I’m trying to do now just open up my own businesses and have other people working for me at a young age,” he says.
Guthrie sits quietly and reflects about the path he would have gone down if it wasn’t for the intervention of Operation New Hope. “It would be so much easier [to go to a life of crime] because there is so much frustration when jobs keep turning you down and sometimes you feel like there is no hope. You feel like that is all that’s left for you to do…so you think: I’ll get in trouble if I go out and rob somebody but that’s the only way I have to get money…so I go out a rob somebody or sell drugs…and all that,” he says.
As far as addressing juvenile crime is concerned, Guthrie thinks there needs to be more of a focus on rehabilitative programs. “Sentences especially [for juveniles] when it’s your first time they just want to throw away the key and you feel like you don’t have any hope after that,” he says.
Guthrie’s face breaks out into another smile when asked how his new life feels. “It feels amazing,” he chuckles, “I can’t even describe how it feels because I’ve never been like this before. I have just turned my life around 360.”