By Keith Sharon, Nashville Tennessean
Published 5:00 a.m. CT Feb. 3, 2023 Updated 9:40 a.m. CT Feb. 3, 2023
Marston was released from prison after five years in 2019 and through a program called Persevere he was able to get a job writing computer code.
He broke down crying in Walmart on the toiletry aisle in front of the multitude of options for skin lotions. It was too much for him. How do you possibly choose? What if you’re wrong? What if you miss the one that is right for you? What if you don’t deserve to be there, choosing lotion, in the first place? Through his tears, he thought how much choosing lotion was like his life.
It was 2019, and Alex Marston of Shelbyville had just been released from prison. He was filled with sadness for where he had been and with joy for where he was going.
Today, Marston, who is 34, is more adept at making decisions. Thanks to a prison program, for which he was the first-ever participant, he has a lucrative job writing computer code, a supportive fiancé, a family that is once again whole and his eyes on a dream house. “I love this man with all my heart,” said Nicole Maynard, 29, who has known Marston since she was 19. They plan to marry on Oct. 7, 2023 in Columbia.
The optimistic future is a relatively new concept for Marston.
There were so many times in the recent past when he thought his life was over. “It’s so hard to keep your mind right,” Marston said.
Coding is the key
Sean Hosman, who has a long history of incarceration, founded the prison transition program Persevere in 2014. He’s now the chairman of the Persevere board. “I’m an addict,” said Hosman, who lives in Nashville. “To watch other people who believe in their heart of heart there’s no way out find a way out – that’s the best.”
Hosman’s background is in software, so when he was trying to come up with a program to help inmates transition into society, his idea could be summed up in one word: coding.
“What do you want people to be when they come out?” he said. He wanted inmates to learn a skill that would not only make them marketable, but also make them good money. A well-paying career is the key to stability, Hosman thought. It took several years to get Persevere off the ground.
“They didn’t build prisons with computer labs,” Hosman said. He had to convince prisons to support the program. And he had to convince businesses to hire coders with a criminal record.
Tennessee was the first state to support his program, and five other states have joined in. On Sept. 1, 2022, Persevere was awarded a $15.5 million federal grant. The program has produced 700 graduates in three years. The recidivism rate for those graduates, Hosman said, is 1.8%, compared to 47% recidivism rate for all inmates in Tennessee.
When the program opened in Tennessee, there was one student waiting in the hallway to sign up for the first coding class. Marston told Hosman, “I have to be your first student.” “He’s ground zero,” Hosman said. “Our poster child.”
It helps when the poster child for a prison program has another quality. “He’s just good,” Hosman said. “He’s thoroughly good.”
Alex Marston was a musical kid growing up in Unionville. He would use his front porch as a stage and invite a couple of friends to come over to jam. They played songs from Green Day, Fallout Boy and Switchfoot.
“The kids used to come down into our front yard to hear us play,” he said.
In his 20s, he got a job as a long-haul trucker, and had a long-time relationship with his girlfriend Nicole Maynard. On Sept. 20, 2014, they had a baby boy. Marston was home for the birth, but he said had to leave shortly after for a two-week drive across the country. When the baby was just more than a month old,
Marston had returned from his trip. Maynard went to work at Walmart.
Marston said he was changing his son’s diaper when he felt the boy’s leg “pop.” The boy started to cry out in pain. Marston took the boy to the emergency room. Doctors found injuries to the baby’s shoulders, knees and ankles. The injuries to the lower extremities were severe, including some fractures, as if someone had twisted the baby’s legs. Some of the injuries were new, but some had already healed.
In a recent interview, both Marston and Maynard said they didn’t know how the baby sustained those injuries. “Screaming during the (diaper) change,” Marston said, was the only time he saw his son in distress.
Marston said he couldn’t afford a private attorney. He said his public defender told him the state could charge him with attempted murder and other crimes that, if he was convicted, would give him 89 years in prison.
He said he decided to plead guilty even though he is adamant he didn’t abuse his son.
“I wanted it to be done,” Marston said.
His crime, attempted aggravated child abuse and neglect, carried an eight-year sentence.
“He’s not angry,” Maynard said. “He’s not violent. He didn’t do this.”
Proving the Persevere program works
His father, Michael Marston, is a software engineer. There were times when the younger Marston was growing up that his dad tried to teach son coding. The lessons didn’t stick.
In 2019, as Marston’s prison sentence was winding down – he ultimately served five years – the warden let it be known that a coding class was about to be starting. The class was called Persevere.
“My hand was up,” Marston said. “Where do I sign?”
He was released from prison in 2019.
“It’s pure joy to see Alex,” said Alisa Malone, CEO of Persevere. “I’m absolutely honored when people like Alex are transforming their lives … when they grab hold of the American dream.”
One key is keeping former inmates like Marston employed. Malone said 60% of returning inmates are unemployed one year after their release.
He started working as a coder for Indeed shortly after his release. He doubled the salary he had been making as a truck driver. And, Marston said, he has a few opportunities for career advancement in the near future.
Because he was convicted of a felony, he does not yet have the right to vote. He cannot get a passport. He can be denied on rental contracts. But he’s working on restoring all those things.