Louisiana is the incarceration capital of the world. But most people behind bars aren’t locked up forever. In fact, 90 percent of them will someday be released. So that makes Louisiana also the reentry capital of the world-- a role the state is ill-prepared for.
Here’s what it’s like when you’re released from prison. You’re given a $20 debit card and a bus ride home. You need small things like a haircut and lessons on how to use a cell phone, and you also need some big things: housing, employment, and emotional support so you don’t reoffend. That’s not as easy as it sounds.
While the reentry programs in Louisiana that do exist vary in what they address and how successful they are, most include some sort of job training or placement that begins while a person is still in prison.
I met Calvin Hills while he was still serving time for a drug charge. You might remember Calvin, who also goes by his nickname, Manny, from a previous Unprisoned episode. After Calvin completed a state reentry program, he was placed in a work release job at Kenner seafood. A bus brought him to work, from the jail, every day.
“This where I’m at back here,” Calvin tells me, leading me through Kenner Seafood.
Calvin washes dishes, and helps out doing whatever’s needed – frying fish, grilling. He likes it. In the dish room, he puts the radio on.
“I’m in my own zone back here,” says Calvin. “I clown back here. Record come on, second line record, I be dancing and everything, they be looking at me, laughing, you know, “look at Calvin back there, dancing back there!” They say: “for you to be old, you sure move good.”
“How old are you, Calvin?” I ask.
“Fifty-five. Fifty-five years old,” he answers. “The two managers, the two sisters, and Ms. Ann, all them love me. I mean they love me. The first day I got here, ‘I wish we could get some more like you.’ They said cause you be everywhere, you work everywhere, you help this person, that person, then you go back and catch your job. And then you don’t be late.”
“Of course we love him, says Ann Elsteroth. “He’s a very hard worker. Bubbly, always, I’ve never see him down, full of energy, comes in ready to work as soon as he gets here.”
Elsteroth is Calvin’s boss at Kenner Seafood. She’s been a manager there for 25 years. So long, she can’t even remember when the restaurant started employing inmates through the work release program.
“It’s employees you can count on,” she says. “You know, they bring them and pick them up. So it’s not like they can call in sick or they’re not going to show up. You know they’re going to be here. So that’s great for us. It’s a dependable employee.”
“Only thing is, says Calvin, “they take out so much money on you, you know? Me, here, I make 500 and something a week. I don’t clear nothing but like fifty-one dollars, and I’m working twelve, thirteen hours a day.”
Louisiana law says sheriffs running work release programs can take up to 70% of inmates’ wages to pay for their room, board, and other expenses. The Orleans Parish Sheriff takes 64%. Part of Calvin’s deductions include $40 a week for daily bagged lunches provided by the sheriff, consisting of two baloney sandwiches, an orange juice, and an orange. (Calvin never eats these because he works in a restaurant, and most days, fries himself some shrimp.) On top of what the sheriff takes from Calvin’s paycheck, there are taxes.
After his release from prison in May, Calvin went to live with his family, in St. Bernard Parish, as planned. It’s a twenty-five mile, forty minute drive from his sister’s house in Violet to Kenner Seafood in Jefferson Parish. That is, when he was able to catch a ride. Without a car, getting to this job was nearly impossible. Remember: this job was selected by the work release program, and when he was in prison he had a built-in ride. Outside, he required multiple bus transfers and several hours in each direction. Calvin found it was too expensive and difficult to get there. So he had to quit.
Calvin is still lucky though: he’s got a place to stay through his sister, and he’s been clean for eight years. Not everyone has a healthy home to return to. And in order to be released from prison, you need an address: a home that has been approved by parole officers. For some returning citizens, going back to live with family often revives old habits and relationships that led to their incarceration in the first place.
“I don’t want to go back to my addiction. The people from my past, I don’t want no parts of anymore, says Marlene Kennedy who’s 55. “I don’t want to live like that anymore. Because I don’t want to lead back into my addiction.
“I was addicted to heroin,” Marlene explains. “And I got off of heroin and started using crack cocaine. But I been clean five years, 7 months.”
When she left St. Gabriel prison, the address Marlene gave was Manifested Miracles. It’s one of a handful of faith-based, shoestring- budget organizations that provide sober housing for people returning from prison.
Marlene started using drugs when she was 17, after her father died. It wasn’t long before she started stealing to support her addiction. She has a long rap sheet.
“When you would shoplift, what would you do with what you stole?” I ask.
“Well I would bring the merchandise and go sell it,” Marlene explains. “If it was $600 worth of merchandise I would get maybe $200 for it to get me something to eat and get my drugs. My record has always been shoplifting. That’s it. Not robbery -- I guess you might want to call it robbery because that’s taking from a store, but I never robbed nobody with a gun or hurt nobody. I hurt me more than I hurt anybody. I hurted me.”
St. Gabriel is Louisiana’s only female correctional facility. When Marlene was serving time there, she was in a reentry program, and they told her: after release, doors will open for you. But Marlene says that hasn’t happened.
“So what do I do? Where do I go do? Who do I talk to? Who? Who? Who helps ex-offenders? They judge me by my record. I don’t know what to do. I want somebody to tell me what to do, how to do it. Just to stay out off the street. I don’t want to be on the street anymore. I don’t want to live like that.
“My sister lives in Columbia Parc, and she can’t take me in because I’m a convicted felon. I have to get permission to go visit my sister over there. My only sister that’s living --I have to get permission to go there. You can’t just go there.”
Columbia Parc is public housing, and for decades, anyone with a criminal record was barred from living there, or even, at times, visiting someone there, like Marlene visiting her sister.
Those rules still stand, but change is on the way. Some felons will be able to live in New Orleans public housing, but not quite yet.
Marlene did eventually land an apartment from a state-run program for disabled people because she has a significant health issue. These apartments are rare and can be difficult to get. Marlene is relieved not to have to sleep under the bridge, like many homeless people do.
Former prisoner Calvin Duncan – who we’ve spoken with in other Unprisoned stories –helped create a reentry home called the First-72-Plus, named for the crucial hours after release.
Duncan says life outside of prison often seems chaotic, even disorienting, to someone used to living a regimented prison life. On the outside, people are vulnerable.
“They gullible. Gullible, gullible, gullible, gullible,” Duncan repeats. “They like sheeps. When a guy come home, they lost out here. They don’t know what areas not to go in. The world has changed. They got wolves out there, plenty of em.”
The First-72-Plus provides no cost housing, meals, and also connections to many of the services people coming home from prison need. But its can only house five people at a time. Just like the faith-based program Marlene Kennedy was in, slots are limited.
That leaves the majority of Louisiana’s record-breaking number of released prisoners mostly on their own, and trying to make their way back into the city’s poorest communities, those with the fewest resources and social services.
According to statistics, within five years, nearly half will be back behind bars again.
This is Unprisoned’s final episode of season one. You can also listen to Unprisoned on iTunes or Stitcher, where you can subscribe to Unprisoned and write a review, which helps other people find Unprisoned. Thanks to WWNO and AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Inc. who produced Unprisoned, a project of the national initiative Finding America. All original music is by Greg Schatz. Our editors are Viki Merrick and Katy Reckdahl. Lead producer is Eve Abrams. Thanks for listening.
Unprisoned: Stories From The System is produced by Eve Abrams and brought to you by New Orleans Public Radio and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated, and with financial support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.