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JUMPSTART Gives Prisoners a Second Chance

A South Carolina nonprofit seeks to break the cycle of recidivism for thousands of prisoners through discipleship and training.

Bethany Starin

When Rob Whitner got out of a South Carolina prison in 2014, it had been more than 20 years since he had seen the outside of a prison compound. He was 47 years old.

“I committed a violent crime with a 20-year life sentence,” Whitner said. Two years into his prison sentence, he became a Christian. “The process of living another 18 years in prison, my faith became real. I learned that God is not a genie in a bottle who will fix all my problems—he wants me to live for him in the most difficult years.”

Over time, he became a leader with JUMPSTART, a nonprofit based in Spartanburg, South Carolina, that disciples current and former prisoners to assist in healthy re-entry to society. Upon release, Whitner said he sought help from JUMPSTART for the transition.

“Believe it or not, coming out of prison can be frightening. You have not been in society. The fear of failure is heavy,” Whitner said, adding that he was taken to JUMPSTART’s Our Father’s House in Spartanburg, a 16-bed transition facility. “They gave me a gradual acclimation period to life on the outside. They take you under their wing.”

JUMPSTART’s Outside Program is a 12-month process that includes low-cost housing, job search assistance, personal case management, dental and medical care, and more. Whitner said so much had changed culturally in almost two decades that he needed help navigating. Prior to his years in prison, debit cards were not used at gas pumps. He learned how to open a debit account, got a job at a local woodworking company, learned how to create and maintain a budget, to be active in a community.

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“At JUMPSTART, we exist to break the back of recidivism and have proven it is possible,” said Tommy Moore, executive director of JUMPSTART, defining recidivism as the cycle of repeated return to prison.

Since JUMPSTART was launched about a decade ago, almost 6,000 men and women have participated in the program. Out of the 3,400 released from prison, less than 200 have gone back. That’s a 97 percent success rate, Moore noted.

JUMPSTART’s programs are distinct from other prison ministries—the 40-week Inside Program emphasizes developing skills for reentry to society. “We are prepping for reentry years before they get out,” Moore said.

Whitner said he often watched the prison doors revolve—men would be released and then come back a few years later. Together with a couple of Christian inmates, they started dialoguing with men who returned.

“We would say, ‘Hey man, why did you come back? What did you forget?’ We started hearing a common thread—problems with housing and they could not get jobs because they were the ‘next felon,’” Whitner said. That became the baseline for creating what evolved into JUMPSTART’s Inside and Outside Programs.

The ability to acclimate to a healthy life begins with three components: faith, discipleship and skills training, Moore said. The Inside Program is crafted around the Bible and the book “The Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren.

“The thing I hear most commonly from prisoners is that when they read Rick Warren’s statement: ‘It is not about you,’ they have told me, ‘I have never heard that my whole life.’ For the first time, at 40 years old, a lot of these people are learning that life is not about them, and it is earth shattering,” Moore said.

In addition to seeing themselves as a child of God, the programs focus on character development and skills training. JUMPSTART’s employment director meets one-on-one with prisoners inside prison, brainstorming with them about their skills and goals and matching them with local employment opportunities.

Whitner got a job with a woodworking company, then got his own place, reconnected with his high-school sweetheart, Helen, and came on staff at JUMPSTART. He eventually moved to North Carolina with his wife, and now two daughters and son and works as a machine operator at Butterball.

“You think about a car battery being dead and somebody putting jumper cables on it and using energy from their car to put it into yours. That’s what JUMPSTART did for me,” Whitner said. “They gave me a hand up and not a hand out.”

Another example of the impact of JUMPSTART is Cary Sanders. Sanders, current Inside Program Director for JUMPSTART, got out of prison five years ago. Put in prison with 17 felony charges by the age of 17, Sanders became a Christian and joined JUMPSTART during his 9 years incarcerated.

“Sanders shot a drug dealer and was facing 25 years in prison,” Moore said. “While in prison, Sanders had a former executive as a cellmate. The former executive asked Sanders if he would take the SAT if he paid for it. Sanders only had his GED. Sanders studied while in prison, got out of prison on a Friday, took the SAT Saturday and scored a nearly perfect score.”

Currently, Sanders has graduated with his undergrad from North Greenville University, went on to get his masters degree and is pursuing his doctorate. Sanders is married, owns his own home, and just welcomed his second child.

“Not everyone’s journey is Cary’s, but he is the representative for everyone who does not define themselves by their past,” Moore said.

COVID-19 had a big impact on JUMPSTART’s programs in 2020, Moore said. Since March of last year, the volunteers were barred from entering the prison for their weekly meetings. As of early February 2021, there was no hope of guidelines changing.

Moore said four of the 16 South Carolina prisons had allowed inmates to begin meeting without volunteers.

With a team of more than 130 volunteers statewide across South Carolina, the Outside Programs have continued on, however. There have only been three small COVID outbreaks across JUMPSTART programming throughout 2020 and into 2021.

“The miracle in this is that our funding has maintained or even improved,” Moore said.

For 2021, JUMPSTART has two goals: getting volunteers back into prisons and launching Restoration Village. In 2020, JUMPSTART purchased 26 acres directly on I-85, halfway between Atlanta, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina, in Spartanburg. Plans are to create a multipurpose center, brand-new homes for their Outside Programs, and a comprehensive transition community center for training.

“We plan on breaking ground this year. Our five-year goal is to double our 52 bed occupancy to 108 beds. That will more than double the number we can serve,” Moore said.

Whitner challenged the common misperception of people behind prison bars.

“There are good things behind prison fences,” Whitner said. “There are monsters in there—believe me. But there are many who have repented and come to grips with what they have done and would love another opportunity to demonstrate that. There are those—diamonds in the rough—that are worth giving another look at.”

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