Rocky a story of recidivism and restored hope

The Rocky Road to Jesus

a song written in Rocky's final days in prison

God, I want to give you my life

Open up the heavens; show me your light

I’ve been in darkness so long

I just want to come back home

God, I want to give you my life

Open up the heavens; show me your light

I’ve been in darkness so long

I just want to come back home

Father, I stand before your throne

I’m a sinner living my life wrong

At times I, I feel so alone

God, give me your mercy

Please help me be strong

Lord, I’m tired of fighting these demons

I can still hear my mother; she’s screaming

Rest in peace, my two brothers, they lay sleeping

God, give me the strength

My kids need me

I’m down on my knees and I’m pleading

I’m at your cross begging, just receive me

This is my prayer to you, please believe me.

God, I want to give you my life

Open up the heavens; show me your light

I’ve been in darkness so long

I just want to come back home

God, I want to give you my life

Open up the heavens; show me your light

I’ve been in darkness so long

I just want to come back home

Rocky's story

Rocky Cantrell sits down in a Panera Bread in North Little Rock, Arkansas. The rain outside pours down the awning, making a waterfall out the window behind him as he sits down in a stuffed armchair. He introduces himself and patiently waits for his friend (The Exodus Project's Hector Felix) to return with his coffee before we begin the interview. He is quiet and polite, smiling kindly before saying, “I’m Rocky Cantrell. I’m 35 years old; born in Texas and raised in Arkansas. This is going to be my story: where I come from, the path I’ve chosen, the decisions I’ve made and where I’m at now.”

He was born in 1981 and raised in Pine Bluff, Arkansas in a Pentecostal household which he describes as “very fire-and-brimstone.” He grew up with one older brother and one younger, and as a child he was molested.

Because of that abuse he turned away from God and away from the spiritual life he had been raised to practice and he began to turn to drugs, which became his means of comfort in the following years. He ran away from home around the age of sixteen and hitchhiked to places like California and New York and got a job that involved travelling throughout the United States. His life began to revolve around drugs he began performing random acts of criminal behavior.

He got married at age 22 to a woman with whom he had three daughters. While his new family gave him a new sense of hope, drugs ultimately won him over and he and his wife divorced. He wasn’t able to stay in one place for too long or get too attached to anyone, realizing that the only real connection he had was with drugs that compensated for the love he was neglected as a child.

Rocky had been to several rehabilitation centers but they never worked; the day he got out of them he would turn back to drugs. In 2009 he was sentenced to drug court for his first felony and thought that was going to be the turning point for him- he was terrified of going to prison. But as soon as he graduated from drug court, he went straight to the liquor store, stopped by the pharmacy to buy a ten pack of syringes, stopped by his supplier and fell back into his spiral.

“My life was just this complete circle of chaos again, and nothing was changing. I was doomed for failure, so why even try?” he says.

In 2013 he moved to Florida and was charged and incarcerated for possession of drugs.

“While I was [in jail],” he says, “I felt this presence and, not understanding what this presence was completely, I knew it was God and I knew He was trying to reach me.” It was while in jail that Rocky came to know God and, after being released on February 17, 2013, he was baptized.

A month later, his best friend died.

That August, his older brother died.

The month after that, his younger brother hung himself.

In December, his 14 year old daughter killed herself—eight days after her birthday.

He tells us about this almost devoid of emotion; not like someone who does not care, but like someone who has and still does care so much but has been exhausted of emotion surrounding the death of his friend and his family, like someone who has told the story so many times he has become numb to it.

After the deaths of those close to him, Rocky began to lose hope and pulled away from God and turned back to drugs, the things he thought he could count on.

“I disconnected completely at that point. I was in the darkest place I’ve ever reached in my life. I had already lost my brothers, this guy Matt who was a huge person in my life,” Rocky says. “When Daisy (his daughter) committed suicide, I had no reason to live anymore. I tried to commit suicide myself.”

Rocky goes on to describe his depression and how he had hit the darkest point in his life and he had no one there for him. It was then when he was incarcerated again for drug possession.

It was while in jail a second time that he filled out an application to register for The Exodus Academy, a faith-based organization that helped prisoners. Through that program he saw began to have hope again. He began learning how to cope with his pain and how to strengthen his spirituality and his relationship with God. Most of all, it was the people who work for The Exodus Project who really made the difference.

“I started feeling connected with people, through this hope process, through this mindset change process, through all these things. They were genuine when they said 'we love you' and I hadn’t heard that genuinely in a long time.”

Through The Exodus Project, Rocky came to realize his life had purpose, meaning and something to strive for, all things his life had been devoid of for years.

Rocky now attends church every Sunday and gives his testimony to tell others about his story. He is working to start an organization called HALO (Helping Adolescents Learn Obedience) with the goal of helping bring up youths with instruction and giving them some sort of direction and structure in their lives. He speaks with his mentors every week and he hopes to one day become a mentor to someone else who is in the same sort of situation he found himself in not too long ago just as those in The Exodus Project helped him.

He is on good terms with his ex-wife and she often will even call him for advice. While before his children had to sneak out of their house to see him or go behind their mother's back to call him, he has been able to visit with them more often.

While there are challenges that come with Rocky’s criminal records (including grand theft auto and drug possession) such as getting a job, he still has hope and trusts in God.

“I haven’t lost hope. I know that God is in charge and he is in control and I believe that with my whole heart.”


Recidivism is a perplexing, fundamental concept to the criminal justice system. The term “recidivism” means when a person leaves jail after serving their time, they relapse and return for a similar offense. This occurrence becomes a habituated lifecycle that most prisoners tend to repeat due to the negative connotation with reentering a “normal” lifestyle. Recidivism rates are measured with the percentage of released inmates that return to prison. The recidivism rates for prisoners have increased in Arkansas, according to a report the Correction Department released in 2015. The report indicated the three-year recidivism rate from 2011 had increased by five percentage points, from about 43% to 48%. Simply speaking, the Correction Department released 6,859 inmates and 3,308 were back in prison within three years. This included a small group—6.4%, or 440 inmates—returned to prison within six months of their release. In just one year after release, 1,200 returning inmates found their way to a jail cell again. If you’re keeping up, that’s 17.5%. There are currently about 19,000 inmates in state prisons and county jails as of 2016.

Specifically, male prisoners are subject to sexual and physical violence while in prison. As one would expect, these victims suffer emotional/physical trauma. Studies suggest that this leads each individual to accept these types of behaviors and value their personal lives and the lives of others less when released.

The real fear sets in when released inmates search for jobs. With background checks and resumes signed with “incarcerated at _____ time,” released inmates struggle to find self worth when they are rejected by society. This vicious cycle transports these men and women back into the justice system due to the lack of security in the “real world.” It doesn’t help when recurring financial issues take place. For example, when state prisons are full, convicted inmates have to remain in county jails until they can find an opening for them to be processed into a state unit.

Former Governor, Mike Beebe, signed a bill that redirected drug users to treatment and accountability courts. It also prioritized Arkansas’s limited space for drug manufacturers. In the past 20 years, Arkansas’s population has increased over 10% while the prison population has increased by over 100%. Corrections for each year spiked from $45 million in 1990 to $349 million in 2010. With the implementation of drug courts, offenders are apart of an accountability program that allows them the opportunity to succeed. The Department of Corrections reported that there was only a recidivism rate of 5.7% among Arkansas drug court graduates.

There are many states across the U.S. that suffer with high recidivism rates, but thankfully, there are people like Arkansas’s current Governor, Asa Hutchinson, in legislation that are reforming the way the criminal justice system works.

Avenues for Hope

Arkansas is leading the nation with innovative ways to address the recidivism epidemic. The system is broken. Restore Hope and The Exodus Project are two programs dedicated to fixing it.

Our friend, Rocky graduated from The Exodus Project, where him and over 150 ex-convicts have successfully completed courses teaching them everything from career development, to housing, to case management and basic life skills. The organization is based in Little Rock, Arkansas and helps individuals that come from the prison system with efforts of trying to successfully integrate them back into society. In 2016, when an inmate is released from prison, roughly 50% will be back within the next three years. The Exodus Project has been overwhelmingly successful with a 5% recidivism rate among their graduates.

"The Governor’s Restore Hope Summit aims at engaging faith leaders across Arkansas in caring for kids in the state foster care system and individuals who are re-entering society from prison. The governor’s call to engage faith leaders cuts across differences in religion, politics, and geography, and recognizes that faith communities offer personal relationships, accountability, and a hope of a greater future. The Governor’s Restore Hope Summit will include remarks from Governor Hutchinson, leadership from the Arkansas Department of Human Services and the Department of Community Correction, leaders in re-entry and foster care ministry and not-for-profit organizations, as well as keynote speakers that will inspire attendees to aim high and sow seed for greater hope for our fellow Arkansans. This means more homes and mentors for foster children, and more housing and jobs for those leaving incarceration. Finally, the Governor’s Restore Hope Summit will offer faith leaders, clergy and lay leaders alike, the tools and the ability to expand, refine, or even begin ministries from their local houses of worship and congregations." - Asa Hutchinson

"I saw that people are people. We all have the same wants and needs. Just because someone went to prison does not mean we should turn our backs towards them. doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of love and belonging. I firmly believe that every human being wants to be loved. Our God is not the God of middle class America. Our God is the God of broken people, and God can still touch [Rocky’s] life regardless of the mistakes he has made. God is much bigger than what I perceive. He wants to me involved with everybody’s lives. Not just people who look like me, act like me and think like me. I think that we should become better neighbors. I think we should seek to understand, an in that gain a bigger worldview.”

-Hector Felix, Case Worker for The Exodus Project

“Arkansas has an opportunity to lead here. I’ve learned that there are many options to impact children’s futures and as well as those who are coming back looking for a second chance. There’s the options of personal engagement, where you will be a foster parent, but not everyone can be a foster parent. There’s other things that can be done from financial support, to wrap around services, to prayer support. Everybody can do something, so let’s not leave anyone out. People in this room reflect the people of Arkansas and that...

We care. We hope. We desire.

We want to serve."

- Arkansas Governor, Asa Hutchinson

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