“I saw from the inside how people were failing and coming back to prison, and I felt I had the opportunity to do something to change that,” says Christine Money, executive director of Kindway.

Few people would call a prison a “special place.” But for Juan Martinez, that’s exactly what Marion Correctional Institution turned out to be, thanks to a nonprofit and its volunteers who prepared him for life after release.

When Martinez arrived in 2004 to serve the majority of a 15-year sentence for drug possession, he expected a stereotypical prison environment—“life-threatening and dangerous.” Instead, he found the warden’s approach to corrections emphasized education and rehabilitation.

“I learned early I was in a special place,” he says. “I would often hear the warden start her presentations, usually at religious functions, by saying that God was welcome here.”

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That warden, Christine Money, would return to Marion years later as executive director of Kindway, a faith-based nonprofit working to prepare and support inmates at Marion Correctional and the Ohio Reformatory for Women for a successful return to the community.

“I saw from the inside how people were failing and coming back to prison, and I felt I had the opportunity to do something to change that,” says Money, who has been a warden at three prisons—two that Kindway serves—and interim director of the Ohio Department of Youth Services during her career in corrections and social work. “Once I retired, I looked for an opportunity in ministry because I saw how dramatically people changed when they built a relationship with Christ while incarcerated.”

The proof is in the numbers. Of the 140 men and women who completed Embark, Kindway’s program to prepare inmates for post-prison life, just 5.7 percent have re-entered the correctional system. In comparison, Ohio’s recidivism rate— defined as returning to prison within three years of release—is 31 percent.

Embark, a 10-month program, was launched in 2011 by a church-based nonprofit that was the precursor to Kindway, which became an independent nonprofit in 2014. Embark participants must be within a year of release and demonstrate that they’re committed to the process of successful re-entry. The curriculum includes cognitive behavioral therapy and a 12-step program to address addiction and past criminal thinking, along with a plan for reintegration. Each participant is matched with a mentor who continues the relationship for at least a year after release.

Before Martinez joined Embark, he had completed tech courses in the prison’s computer lab and graduated from a four-year program through Winebrenner Theological Seminary. But even with that background and his preparation through Embark, he says the transition to life outside was more difficult than expected. Martinez began living with his brother and two sons, but wanted his own place and the ability to support his family.

Money understands the reluctance from some employers and landlords to hire or rent to people with criminal records, but she hopes Kindway’s record can convince them to give Embark graduates the chance they need to gain independence.

“When we first started, we had a couple of businesses that would hire our folks, but the jobs weren’t quite full-time and there were no benefits,” Money says. “Now we have companies that pay benefits and hire our people because we’ll have one start a job and do well. That person then opens doors [others] behind them.”

Franklin International, an adhesives manufacturer with locations in Columbus and Groveport, has hired 13 Embark graduates since 2017. Eleven still work for the company.

“We had struggled to find qualified candidates for our production environment who could pass a drug test and show up for work reliably,” says Franklin International President and COO Evan Williams. “We became convinced through our review with Chris Money and others that Embark was selective enough, intentional, faith-based and supported by active volunteers well beyond time behind bars.”

Money says Kindway “walks the talk” with two formerly incarcerated individuals in full-time staff positions. In early 2019, when Kindway had an opening for a director of development and communications, Money thought of Martinez, who had by then secured stable employment and housing, and was ready for his next venture.

He got the job.

“That’s what’s at the heart of this,” Martinez says. “Receiving goodness from others when you least deserve it is humbling. It’s transforming.”

Shannon Shelton Miller is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.