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story.lead_photo.caption Scott McLean speaks after receiving the Marie Interfaith Civic Leadership Award on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018. - Photo by Stephen Simpson

Pathway to Freedom Inc. has been called a life changer for many former inmates, and on Tuesday its founder, Scott McLean, was honored with the Marie Interfaith Civic Leadership Award, given annually to recognize people whose work addresses community issues in Arkansas.

Gregory Dillon, a graduate of the program, took center stage at Tuesday's ceremony at Temple B'nai Israel and told a room filled with judges, preachers and community leaders how McLean's program saved him.

"I came from a dysfunctional family," Dillon said. "In a drug deal gone wrong, my mom gave me away. I dealt with physical and mental abuse. As I grew older I followed my parents' footsteps. All I knew how to do was to sell drugs and use drugs."

Dillon's path eventually landed him in an Arkansas Department of Correction facility where he applied for Pathway to Freedom, a faith-based re-entry and rehabilitation program.

"This was not just a program, it was a new way of living," Dillon said. "It was hope. Some of us never had hope."

Since his release, Dillon has been promoted to a management position in his company. He has became an associate pastor at Pleasant Hill Church and is a father to his kids.

"I know I can't have a new beginning, but I can start over and have a new ending," Dillon said as the room filled with applause.

Pathway to Freedom was created in 2011. It seeks to transform prisoners' lives with an 18-month pre-release residential program through a contractual agreement with the Correction Department. The program also provides 12 months of mentoring and support once the inmate has returned to the community.

Pathway to Freedom is a nonprofit, faith-based service program that provides educational, values-based, pre-release services to prisoners on a voluntary and noncompulsory basis, while preparing inmates to reintegrate into society and become productive citizens through the use of new and improved pro-social and life skills that will enhance family and social relationships, moral and spiritual development, and employment opportunities.

"We aren't just a Bible study," McLean said. "We don't just sit by the fire and sing 'Kumbaya.' We hold these guys accountable and address the risk factors."

From opening churches in Russia to conducting ministries in the inner cities of New York, McLean said he always felt called to help others move toward a brighter future.

"Your purpose will find you," McLean said

McLean served as the InnerChange Freedom Initiative Reentry manager in Kansas from 2000-05. He also served as the director of that program in Arkansas from 2006-11.

"Who would have imagined I would spend 18 years in prison with 200 inmates. Now I don't have any hair," McLean said with a laugh.

The goal of Pathway to Freedom is to change prison culture and break the cycle of recidivism.

"Seeing the heart and brokenness from these men and being able to see the restoration and healing from these inmates is a driving force," McLean said.

Sept. 26 marked Pathway to Freedom's seventh anniversary, and it's going strong with between 200 and 220 inmates in the program at any given time. And while the recidivism rate within three years among the general inmate population in Arkansas is 56 percent, McLean previously said the rate dips to between 15 percent and 20 percent for those in the Pathway to Freedom program.

"We want people to live their life and be responsible adults," McLean said. "We've got to break the cycle because we can't keep building new prisons."

Dillon said that when he was released the program taught him to have a vision for himself.

"If you can't believe beyond where you are, then you will never go beyond that," Dillon said. "My first job I made $8.50 and hour, but I was happy because I earned it. I was proud of my first check."

Dillon said he used the things he was taught in the program to get through the tough times when he was released from prison.

"I was actually released from my first job, but I knew from the program to have patience," Dillon said. "Now I am running a department at my job. The company I work for now used to look down on felons, but now they are a second-chance company because of me. All of this is a ripple effect from what I learned in the program."

Metro on 10/10/2018

CORRECTION: Inner-Change Freedom Initiative in Arkansas never received federal funding. An earlier version of this story misstated the initiative’s source of funding.

Print Headline: Founder of Arkansas inmate aid program gets award

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