When Alex Denning was 16 years old, his family traded in California's endless summers for Minnesota’s never-ending winters. Alex's ambition was to be a professional skateboarder, and the move felt like the death of his dream.
"Our life was good. We would always take vacations; my parents are still together. We had such a wonderful upbringing," he recalls.
Still, Alex was unhappy—and acted on those negative feelings. He ended up getting expelled from his new high school. His older brother had stayed behind in California, and Alex's expulsion motivated him to return to his home state.
But after his return to California, Alex's teenage rebellion went from bad to worse. Alex looked up to his older brother and wanted to do everything he did. Unfortunately, that meant partying, drinking, and smoking weed. It wasn't long before Alex was involved in crime.
"It came to the point where I didn't think I would survive if I didn't move back home with my family," Alex says. He rejoined his family in Minnesota, but he didn't leave his old habits behind. In 2012, Alex was involved in an altercation that led to his arrest for assault.
Alex expected to receive an eight-year prison sentence, but to his surprise, the judge let him off with probation—something so unusual that it brought his lawyer to tears. Alex remained unchanged, however.
"My whole life, it was like I kept hitting the lottery, and I just didn't get it," he says. Shortly after starting probation, he was arrested for robbery and sentenced to 98 months in prison.
'My whole life, it was like I kept hitting the lottery, and I just didn't get it.'
'I HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE'
Not long after Alex entered prison, an older prisoner came up to him and said, "Why don’t you try and get into the Prison Fellowship Academy®?"
Alex had never heard of it. "What’s it all about?"
The man only answered, "You should check it out." The conversation stuck in Alex's mind, and he looked into the program. Unfortunately, he was unable to enroll in the Academy right away because of his maximum-security custody level.
Alex kept himself aloof from the other prisoners. People respected him because they knew about the assault he had committed, but that worried him. "That's a terrible thing to be respected for," Alex says. Then he saw something that really made him want to change.
"One time, these guys assaulted somebody in there," Alex remembers. "When the guy was laid out bleeding everywhere, the guards rushed in, and the place erupted in applause and shouts like a football game. I thought, This is horrible, I have to get out of here."
Academy communities 'make people feel like they're a part of something instead of just being thrown out by society.'
A DIFFERENT KIND OF RESPECT
After three years behind bars, Alex's custody level was downgraded. He was finally able to join the Academy, where, he says, he found God, learned the meaning of community, and gained a greater respect for others.
The men in the Academy respected Alex for giving his life to Christ and growing in his faith—a much different kind of respect than he had previously received.
Alex says Academy communities "make people feel like they're a part of something instead of just being thrown out by society."
The Academy also helped change Alex's thinking. "I had no hope for anything earlier in my life," he says. Rather, "I [only] hoped I would get high or party. [In the Academy] I established that hope in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. I want to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy."
WHEN COLLATERAL CONSEQUENCES STAND IN THE WAY
Ninety-five percent of prisoners eventually leave prison, but life on the outside is tough. Returning citizens face thousands of challenges called collateral consequences that affect their futures. When Alex was released, he was eager to work for a living. He got plenty of job interviews ... but not many job offers. Despite how much employers liked him, it was always the same: "When the criminal background came up, they got skittish, and it fell through. The interviews would always go well, but then the background check went bad."
The same thing happened when he tried to find housing. Every time he applied for an apartment, Alex says management would tell him, "We would love to rent to you. Everything looks good … except for the criminal background. It's just not something we can put through our office. It's not possible, not allowed."
When Alex could find apartments, they were rundown places in parts of town riddled with crime, drugs, and poverty—hardly the right place for a man trying to keep his bad choices in the past.
"I knew my criminal record would make it hard to find a job or housing. The past is what restricts the future. But someone is going to give you a chance, and when you get that chance you take advantage of it."
And that's exactly what Alex did.
SEIZING HIS SECOND CHANCE
Eventually, Alex landed a job at a national restaurant chain and found housing through a woman who had successfully rented to another Academy graduate. Then, on the advice of friends and acquaintances, Alex applied for work through a talent agency.
He was initially told that his tattoos, the most visible reminder of his past, would make it too hard for him to find work. But Alex persisted. An agency eventually accepted Alex as a client, and today he travels around the country as a model and actor.
His first acting role? A prisoner.
'I knew my criminal record would make it hard to find a job or housing. The past is what restricts the future. But someone is going to give you a chance, and when you get that chance you take advantage of it.'
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