By MICAH HENRY
A group The Times covered in July of this year is still hoping to improve the lives of convicted felons, reduce recidivism (the likelihood they will offend again), and create better outcomes for all Americans, despite setbacks the organization recently endured.
New Hope Initiative (NHI), incorporated a year ago, is “a collective of felons and families of felons who believe in the need for major criminal justice reform within our country and our communities,” explained Founder and President Chris Johnson, age 31, an inmate at Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville. (Johnson is serving a 20 year sentence for second degree murder in Buncombe County; he killed because he was attempting to prevent the sexual assault of a friend, he said. He also has a previous criminal history.)
Helping Johnson is New Hope Initiative Executive Vice-President, Tammy Cooper, whose brother is incarcerated at Alexander Correctional Institution.
New Hope is a Christ-centered group, Johnson explained, adding that he gives all the credit to God for helping him to continue to advocate for positive change.
As reported in July, New Hope is planning to set up several paths to help inmates, current and former, to reduce recidivism.
“The inspiration for New Hope Initiative is the result of many years of self-reflection and personal experience enduring the many hardships that come with being a prisoner in America’s Prison System,” Johnson said.
“Just because they’re prisoners doesn’t mean they should be treated like animals,” said Cooper.
Johnson said New Hope’s mission is from Isaiah 61:1, which states, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound…” Although it is Christian based, New Hope will offer help to anyone, regardless of religion or other status.
Johnson said he and New Hope board members have methodically created plans to address each one of the issues he has either experienced or has been told about by inmates.
“I network with prisoners and talk with their families, too,” he explained.
Since he’s “inside,” Johnson needed help in getting the Initiative incorporated and in recruiting volunteers, which has been a slow process.
Early on, New Hope nearly had a permanent setback that would have ruined Johnson’s testimony and almost resulted in a murder.
In 2016, Johnson had been working on the ideas for New Hope and outlining goals for about three years. In a wheelchair, Johnson feared he would be assaulted in the unit he was housed in. He asked to be moved but his request was denied. Not long after, a gang member sexually assaulted Johnson. Of course, this enraged Johnson, the more he thought about it. Soon, Johnson was on his way to kill the gang member who had assaulted him, but he stopped. He realized this would ruin his testimony — and all the work on New Hope Initiative.
“I didn’t hurt him because I believe in New Hope so much,” Johnson said.
There has been progress, punctuated by some setbacks.
“Last year, we had some people really believe in our mission. We got a professional website created, a logo, and we’re trying to get people to see how vital and important this initiative is,” Johnson stated.
As an inmate, Johnson himself cannot handle finances for New Hope. Sadly, a person whom Johnson had trusted with handling the finances proved unfaithful. The person stole money that New Hope Initiative had intended to be used for setting up its 501(c)3 non-profit status paperwork.
What’s worse, Johnson himself was assaulted in prison this summer by someone whom he had trusted. The inmate, who was nearing release, seriously attacked Johnson and shattered his nose, requiring reconstructive surgery. Johnson is recovering from surgery.
“I didn’t fight back,” Johnson said. “I thought if I did, no one would take me seriously about our mission. I had to be the example.”
Johnson has experienced oppression from other inmates and from prison staff, he said. But he draws courage from the Apostle Paul’s tenacity for telling others about Christ, as written in Phillipians 3:14, “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Jesus Christ.”
“No matter where the oppression comes from, I just want to keep going, so that everyone has the opportunity they need,” Johnson said. “I’m not allowing anything to pull me down and stop me from what God has called me to do.”
New Hope’s plans are still in place. Johnson said he would like churches to become part of the program. As the first steps, he hopes New Hope’s non-profit status can be obtained (an estimated cost of $600), its email server bill can be paid (which recently lapsed), and that New Hope’s Prisoner Potential program can begin. This involves a “creative and promotional platform for all things prisoner talent, where inside we are assisting prisoners in using their talent to create, and outside we are displaying and promoting their work to the public to create healthy connections and solid opportunities using their gift for good.”
A possible funding method for New Hope’s programs is the creation and sale of X-Con Clothing, a line of apparel to help break down the stigma of “convict” or “felon” titles and featuring artwork and designs from felons and prisoners.
Johnson and Cooper remain positive about the future of New Hope and its potential to positively affect many lives as soon as funding and structure are in place. They hope to outline New Hope’s
progress in future articles in The Times.
To learn more about New Hope Initiative or to assist the organization with a donation, call Vice President Tammy Cooper, 828-582-0231, or visit New Hope’s website,