By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
A graduation ceremony for rehabilitating inmates may not be the ideal place to sell a Subaru, but that’s only one of two reasons Robert Long is attending.
“I’m doing a little prospecting here,” he said. “I know there’s people from all different walks of life. I was just at work. I wanted to be able to make it up here to see some of the guys that I was locked up with and let them see that I’m doing good, kinda spread that joy and that hope.
“So I brought a new 2016 Legacy with me, too, so everyone can look at it because it’s a beautiful car, and it attracts a lot of attention.”
Long was released from Arkansas Community Correction custody Sept. 28. Before that, he completed 240 hours of classes offered by The Exodus Project (exodus.life) on the campus of Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock.
Founded by Paul Chapman and ABC President Dr. Fitz Hill, the ministry began seven-and-a-half years ago, but its current form took shape in February. It focuses on ethics and character based on biblical teachings, career development, and helping inmates recover and build a long-term plan for their lives. Participants are encouraged to ask themselves difficult questions in order to change their mindsets.
Fifteen begin each class, and 100 are expected to complete the program this year. Most participants are recovering addicts.
The theme of the ceremony Nov. 6 was “Out for Life.” Graduates wearing brown prison uniforms exchanged emotional hugs with a line of instructors and then received their diplomas from Gov. Asa Hutchinson – who as a former U.S. attorney once worked to put people in jail.
Arkansas prisons are so overcrowded that the state’s county jails can’t hold the excess, and so now the state is sending inmates to Texas. Last year, policymakers considered building a $100 million prison that immediately would have been filled to capacity – in large part by returning inmates. Arkansas releases 10,000 inmates every year – in the past, with nothing but a bus ticket and $100 – and the recidivism rate is more than 40 percent.
We can’t keep building $100 million prisons or relying on Texas. With prodding by Hutchinson, the Legislature this year funded a transitional facility to help 500 inmates re-enter society and stay out of jail, but that’s not enough. This summer, Hutchinson hosted a summit to inspire churches and other faith-based groups to do more to help inmates return to society but not to their old ways of life.
That’s what The Exodus Project is hopefully doing for Robert Long. Describing himself as once a “hopeless drug addict,” he completed the program and then moved into the ministry’s transitional home in Little Rock. At Subaru of Little Rock, he said he sold 11 units in his first month and earned $2,000 in commission on a recent Saturday. He brought promotional material in addition to the car to the graduation ceremony.
Beneath his short-sleeve blue dealership shirt is an impressive physique. He goes to the gym every morning before work to give him the high he’s sought from drugs in his past. I tell him he doesn’t look like a drug addict.
“A lot of people say that about me, you know, and I think that’s been one of the things that’s got me into trouble, too,” he said. “When you look at me in the face, you don’t really know what you’re dealing with. I can put up a pretty good facade even when I’m in the midst of my addiction. But the truth of the matter is I have transformed. You’re looking at a different man.”
Long’s job at the dealership will be one of the keys to his success. The Exodus Project is a Christian ministry, but co-founder Chapman said church involvement and education aren’t enough. The unemployment rate for ex-offenders is 47 percent. That’s a lot of idle hands.
“If we don’t move the needle on full-time employment, everything else (will) struggle to make a true difference,” Chapman said.
At the graduation, Hutchinson asked employers to wait later in the employment process before asking job applicants the disqualifying “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” question. By delaying that question, someone like Robert Long won’t be eliminated before he has an opportunity to interview and impress.
“Let’s get beyond the checking of the box,” Hutchinson said. “Let’s give someone a chance to have a second chance.”