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Us Helping Us: Formerly Incarcerated Men Assist One Another Through The First 72+

Courtesy of The First 72+
Co-Founders, and brothers, Ben and Tyrone Smith during their time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, LA.

The First 72+ seeks to stop the cycle of incarceration by fostering independence and self-sustainability.


Imagine you've just spent years, maybe decades, incarcerated. You’ve paid your debt to society, and upon release, you're given a bus ticket and $10. But, that’s not $10 cash. It’s a $10 check that you can’t immediately cash because more than likely you don’t have a social security card, a state ID, a bank account, transportation, or family to help you out.


Unfortunately, few re-entry services or programs are available to you, and they are especially limited in New Orleans, even though 15,000 people are released annually in Louisiana. I visit one of the handful of places that offers help.


"Two guys sleep in here. Two guys sleep in there also. This is the utility room there. And, this is the kitchen," says Ben Smith, executive director at The First 72+.


The First 72+ is a re-entry program that provides transitional housing and other services for formerly incarcerated men in Louisiana.


"When a guy makes parole, he don’t have housing, he has to stay in jail until he finds someone to take him in. We only have four now, because one of the guys transitioned out about two weeks ago. We got two more guys about to transition out. And the third guy transitioning out. They moving on, they got their own apartment. They’ll be moving out in the next two to three weeks."


In the first three days of their release, men will receive support like transportation home from prison, clothes, food, and transportation to social services offices. The First 72+ will also provide health care via local partnerships, and even educational support.


Steven Bradley is one of the first graduates of the First 72+ to get his GED. Upon his release, The First 72+ told the parole board that they would see to him getting his GED. He started the GED class in November, and got his GED in January.


"We’re proud of him. We got him on our website, we sent pictures to the parole board in Baton Rouge and everything," says Smith.


"I hope a lot of other guys get the same opportunity that I had, to get out and go to school to get their GED. Because many of them get out, saying they’re gonna get it and just gone about their business and they live to be old and never get it. I wanted mine. I was determined to get it, and I got it," says Bradley.


What Bradley says is true. Many people aren’t able to reach the goals they set out to achieve, and much of that is due to the cycle of recidivism. One out of every two people released from prison in Louisiana will return within five years, according to the Louisiana Department of Corrections.  Smith says that while there was a lot of talk about recidivism, not much was being done to address the issue.


"Well, me being a formerly incarcerated person, me and five other guys, we got together and we formed this organization. Each one of us was formerly incarcerated. We decided to take it upon ourselves and do something about it."


Smith says he knows what it’s like to struggle when you get out, and it’s especially important to get support from people who can relate.


"The only guy that give me a chance was a formerly incarcerated person, Blair Boutte. He gave me a job. He put me on stable ground. Not saying I wouldn’t have found a job, but it was hard."


Blair Boutte also donated the house to The First 72+.

According to the Justice Department, about 60 percent of formerly incarcerated people can’t find work within their first year out. Until November 2015, it was even harder for people that were re-entering, because of a simple box that you had to check acknowledging that you were a convicted felon when applying for jobs. In reality, there’s nothing simple about it.


The box led to discrimination against formerly incarcerated people in the hiring process for federal government employees. At the city level, New Orleans has banned the box. But this only applies to instances where the city is the employer, or when the city hires a contractor. At the state level, the bill is pending in the legislature.

Even though some employers are willing to hire formerly incarcerated people and not judge them based on their felony conviction, nobody comes out of prison with a first month’s rent, a security deposit, credit history, and rental history. If you need a job to get a house, you also need time and a place for that.


"Because housing, that will enable you to get up in the morning and look for a job. You don’t have to worry where your next meal is coming from, because we provide it - food, we keep the lights on, the utilities on," says Smith.


Community Impact is a series exploring the work of New Orleans nonprofits. It is made possible by the Greater New Orleans Foundation.


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