Lidia Landis’ eyes welled up with tearsas she recalled her experience in prison.
Landis was sentenced to two years for embezzling money from her employer. Landis said she needed money for a sick relative without insurance who was in desperate need.
Landis spent five months in Duval County Jail and a year inside Montgomery County Prison, which she calls the “Pea Farm.”
Landis said she spent most of her time inside 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 says prison did not rehabilitate her; rather, she implies 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 for every 100,000 residents.
Reentering society upon release can be a huge struggle for many former prisoners and their families. Local community development corporation Operation New Hope is attempting to address this issue — in Landis’ eyes, they’re making real progress. Their Ready4Work program helped her overcome some serious obstacles after leaving prison.
Upon release, Landis was without a job or a home. The one thing that had remained in her life was her husband, whom Landis credits as one of her main sources of strength during this period.
As a convicted felon, Landis, a college-educated accountant, found that any job prospects that suited her qualifications were gone — in fact, all her job prospects were slim. Landis said this was incredibly frustrating, particularly because the terms of her probation stipulated that she find a job immediately and start paying a sizeable fine imposed by the court.
After searching for months, Landis found a few jobs in fast food that offered very few hours and were a long commute from her home. Landis needed something more to live on. Then she remembered rumors going around prison about a place that helped offenders: Operation New Hope.
Upon entering the doors of its Downtown Jacksonville office, she says she felt a real sense of zeal for her future; during intake on her first day, she was told, “There’s hope; just believe in yourself.”
Throughout the program, an entire team was devoted to helping Landis find acceptable employment. She also had counselors to advise her on everything from interviewing skills to professional social media use. Landis was given a life coach and sent to classes to help her regain some of her 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 suits her skill set; better still, she enjoys the work. “When you get out of jail, your mindset is set one way … and it’s 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’s 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.
Inside the Operation New Hope offices on an early afternoon in late April, CEO and founder Kevin Gay explained the roots of the Ready4Work program and spoke of the plight of those affected by the U.S. prison system.
With elegant mannerisms and a warm voice that exudes passion, Gay exhibits compassion as the driving force behind creating the business. He has infused the entire company with his empathy and drive. “We have developed a really sophisticated system here in what we do … different than anything that I think you’ll see,” he said.
Gay said he used his corporate background as a tool when he was developing the Ready4Work 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.”
In 2005, Gay brought in 10 of the nation’s top CEOs for a focus group. “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.” He said the facilitator then asked them to take a deep breath and think about what it would take for them to hire people like that. “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 Gay began to assemble the philosophy behind the Ready4Work program. It was the first step toward building a curriculum that addressed any concerns employers may have about hiring someone who has been incarcerated.
In Jacksonville, the rising crime rate has been of great concern and is something Mayor Lenny Curry is attempting to address by revamping the Jacksonville Journey Anti-Crime Initiative.
Facilitated by funding through the initiative, Operation New Hope has been able to add resources and 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.
Gay says 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 Ready4Work program has also hadan impact on another area the initiative is focused on: youth crime and prevention. One evening, this was readily apparent.
The wide grin on Joven Guthrie’s face revealed everything one would need to know about the state of his life. After working all day outdoors at his new job at a roofing company, Guthrie was still bright and fresh-faced. The job, which he adores, is one reason he’s looking forward to the future and dreaming of college and owning a business. Guthrie is only 20, but looks a bit younger — it’s hard to believe that less than a year ago, he had lost hope for his future because of his criminal record.
Guthrie was sent to jail after being caught with a gun while drinking with friends. He maintains that the gun was not intended for violent purposes; it was more for show. Nevertheless, Guthrie was charged with possession of a firearm and resisting arrest. He spent three months in Duval County jail. Guthrie didn’t hesitate to say that jail was “hell on Earth.” He said when he got out, he thought “the worst” about his future. His dreams of going to college were quashed.
After just three weeks in the Ready4Work program, Guthrie found a job. “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’m going to start you off at 10 dollars an hour!’” Guthrie has been there ever since and said he was even expecting a raise soon.
“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 said.
Guthrie now plans to go to college and major in business management. “I want to open my own landscaping business. That has always been a dream.” 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.
When asked what path he might have gone down without Operation New Hope, Guthrie sat quietly and reflected for a minute. “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’s 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 and rob somebody or sell drugs,’” he said.
As far as juvenile crime is concerned, Guthrie thinks there should be more 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 said.
Guthrie broke into another smile when asked how his new life feels. “It feels amazing,” he chuckled, “I can’t even describe how it feels because I’ve never been like this before. I have just turned my life around 360.”
Correction: a previous version of the article incorrectly identified Joven Guthrie as his brother, Jarvis Guthrie.