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HOPE Inc. offers a lifeline to people who have just been released from jail

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When John Bailey walked out of prison after serving 25 years for a robbery that cost a woman her life, he knew there was something he needed to do.

The court had found him guilty of first-degree murder, even though it also found that his weapon had discharged accidentally. That detail, and his obvious remorse, probably spared him the death penalty.

With the rest of his life still in front of him, John had some hope of redemption. But walking out of prison is a challenge for anybody, and for far too many, the exodus is temporary: Without aid, guidance or divine intervention, they wind up right back inside, or worse.

There are a number of agencies and nonprofit organizations designed to prevent that, but just navigating the morass of bureaucracy and paperwork can be overwhelming, especially for the large percentage of offenders who struggle with substance abuse and mental illness, many of whom are veterans. Fortunately for them, there is HOPE Inc.—Helping Ourselves Pursue Enrichment.

HOPE is a "consumer-driven, consumer-run" organization, says Heather McGovern, its chief financial and operations officer. "Everyone here, from the receptionist to the CEO, has been touched in some way by substance abuse or mental illness, and that usually means some contact with the criminal-justice system."

Our faux-puritanical, punishment-obsessed society has a bad habit of qualifying such people as something less than human, and the result is too often a vicious circle of recidivism and re-internment. About 42,000 people per year pass through the Pima County criminal-justice system, and jail-bed space alone costs nearly $8 million annually.

"It's a revolving door, and it costs money," says Tucson City Councilman Richard Fimbres, who chairs meetings of the Pima County Re-Entry Coalition, where HOPE and other like-minded organizations and individuals network and collaborate. "But programs like this have made a dent."

HOPE operates on the principle that it takes one to know one—and to communicate effectively. "We don't ask them, 'What's wrong with you?'" says community volunteer coordinator Tammy Bushman. "We ask, 'What happened to you?' And we share what happened to us." This type of communication, grounded in shared experience and true caring, builds trust and stops the revolving door.

HOPE goes inside the jail to make contact with inmates before they're released, and follows them through the process to ensure that they show up for court appearances, adhere to probation rules, complete their community-service requirements, get the treatment or counseling they need, find work, stay clean and sober, and meet any number of other challenges on the outside.

The results are impressive. "We've had a success rate of about 95 percent," says Tammy, who defines success as no re-entry of jail or failures to appear for court dates. "There are people who've racked up as many as 26 failures to appear, which is very costly to the system and usually results in them returning to jail."

John Bailey will be the first to tell you that it works. "I needed some health care when I got out, with a bad hip and rheumatoid arthritis, but they kicked me off AHCCCS," the Arizona version of Medicaid that's suffered steep budget cuts in recent years. "My brother was in jail and told me about this group that came in and talked to them. He told me maybe they could help."

When John checked it out, he realized there was much more to it than he could have imagined. "I just came looking for some health insurance, but I found my calling—to share and give back." Like many others who've used HOPE's services, John volunteers there, connecting with kindred souls.

Sitting in Tammy's office and listening to Big John, as he's known by his HOPE peers, I'm riveted. He's an imposing and charismatic man, with a powerful voice enriched with the passion of an experience few can comprehend. He readily invokes the name of the woman he killed as his guiding spirit in a quest to prevent similar tragedies. "HOPE is my family. If I can reach just one young man and keep him from going down the path I went, that's my vision."

Says Tammy, "It's never too late. I was 39 when I got out."

I remember walking out of a federal prison after just six months down. I felt like a radioactive alien. I was afraid to drive my car or have sex with my partner, and after a particularly awkward interaction with a convenience-store clerk, she said, "Boy, your social skills have really eroded." I can only imagine how Big John must've felt.

At HOPE, they don't have to imagine. They know.

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