Peer-to-peer leadership transforms inmates

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Self-managed, objectively accountable, peer-based leadership. It seems like an ideal structure — which makes it all the more remarkable that it originated in prison.

“The first time I ever saw this happen,” says Tommy Moore, “I thought corporate America would pay millions of dollars for this.”

Moore is the executive director of JumpStart, a Spartanburg-based ministry dedicated to transforming prisoners’ lives, both inside and out. The centerpiece is a 40-week program geared toward character and faith development, led by inmates for inmates. Upon their release, graduates can then participate in a 12-month follow-up program, which offers low-cost housing in one of 16 transitional homes, as well as access to physical, mental, and dental health care, and even permanent employment.

One of those employers is Chris Phillips, owner of Sun Surveillance in Spartanburg.

“The JumpStart guys are prepared for work, strive to do their best, and are sincerely appreciative of the opportunity,” Phillips says.

He says he felt called by God to hire former prisoners and over the past eight years has reached the point that his entire staff of seven consists of JumpStart graduates or participants.

“I told someone recently I feel they each do the work of two men,” he says. “There is such genuine gratitude.”

JumpStart began in the mid-1990s with four inmates — three of whom had life sentences,” according to Moore.

“They felt burdened because they’d see guys get out and come back, get out and come back,” he says. “And back then South Carolina had one of the highest recidivism rates in the nation.”

Numerous interviews yielded four primary drivers of recidivism among former inmates: inability to find a place to live, inability to find a place to work, community rejection, and lack of knowledge of a different lifestyle.

Inspired by Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life,” the founders developed and copyrighted a manual that leads participants through an intensive program to help address those four problems and, in so doing, transform their lives. The curriculum, led by inmates, centers on core values of accountability, responsibility, and submission to authority.

“At the beginning of the year, we’ll have roughly 1,000 inmates in our program, but there’s a pretty quick attrition rate,” Moore says. “The uninformed belief is, ‘Go to JumpStart, get out of prison, don’t go back.’ But then you start the program and realize, oh, this is for real. I mean, we have a workbook, there’s classes — you have to be intentional to want to work.”

Along with the classes comes a quarterly peer review using a 35-point questionnaire, helping to both cultivate future leaders and objectively rank individuals in categories like character, honesty, health, and preparation for re-entry.

“These guys are seriously holding each other accountable,” Moore says.

The JumpStart program is now offered in 16 of South Carolina’s 23 prisons. Moore says more than 5,000 inmates have graduated the inside program, and of the 2,100 of those who’ve been released from prison, fewer than 70 have gone back.

“So the headline is, our recidivism rate is 4 percent, versus a national average of 70 percent and a state average of about 23 percent,” Moore says. “We’re saving the state of South Carolina $7 million every year. It’s the number of beds not being used by people who normally would have gone back.”

Moore says that 97 percent of all inmates are people who made a bad choice, and in that moment changed the rest of their lives. And when those 97 percent get released, it’s not like the movies.

“There’s no knapsack,” Moore says. “There’s no $25. In the winter, a lot of times there’s no coat. There’s shoes, pants, a belt, shirt, underwear, and a one-way bus ticket. That’s it. Nothing else.”

For graduate Jim Walker, who’s now worked at Sun Surveillance for eight years, the program was a lifesaver.

“I had no family to go home to,” he says. “JumpStart gave me options when I felt my options were very few.”

Walker now serves as a mentor to three recent graduates. And he’s in the process of buying a new home.

“JumpStart has impacted every facet of my life,” he says. “Spiritual, financial, personal. It felt like everyone wanted to help. It gave me direction, accountability, and friendship.”

The program has been so successful that it’s facing an unexpected challenge.

“Now we have more employers than we have people to employ,” Moore says. “For the first several years of this ministry, they could not find jobs for these guys. The tipping point was when business owners like Chris Phillips took a risk with one. And that’s what it felt like, a risk. And then two, and then three. And then it was like, ‘These guys are smart, they’re hard-working, they blow the others out of the water,’ and so over time the word’s gotten out.”

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