Lafayette Parish’s effort to prepare convicted felons for life after jail has come a long way since Sheriff Mike Neustrom started the Transitional Work Program 11 years ago.

Contrast July 2004 when one inmate with time left on his jail sentence entered the work-release program to today’s 98 participants. Eight of them are women.

They’re inside the kitchens of Lafayette’s restaurants and on the grounds of Acadiana’s industrial facilities, cooking, washing, working general labor or in a specialty craft, such as welding. They’re operating fork lifts in warehouses or hooking slings to crane lines in an oil field yard.

A few of them even work offshore on time-on, time-off schedules, saving money or helping their families get through until they’re released.

Lafayette correctional officials and the judges who sentenced the inmates believe having them work accomplishes a whole lot more than making them serve their sentences doing nothing.

“In jail, that (doing nothing) is called dead time,” parish Director of Corrections Rob Reardon said. “I don’t think that it’s productive for anybody. … At some point, they’re going to be released.”

Neustrom, Reardon, 15th District Judge Marilyn Castle and other officials hosted a gathering last week at the 1-year-old Public Safety Complex on West Willow Road where programs for low-risk parish prisoners, including the inmates in the work-release program, were relocated from the downtown Lafayette jail.

Neustrom said there are critics of the program who believe work-release is a waste of money and other resources and that sentences are meant to punish offenders.

Neustrom has a different view, one that has led him to incorporate a number of prisoner rehabilitation programs in the years since he was first elected in 1999. Work-release was one of those programs.

“(Rehabilitation) is a complicated issue, a very costly issue,” said Neustrom, who has announced he’ll not run for a fifth term in the fall.

Castle said the hardest part of being a judge is sentencing someone to a jail sentence. She said Lafayette’s prisoner work program is viewed statewide as a model.

“It is incredible the transformative effect that something like this has on them,” Castle said.

For many felons, the job they started and held while in jail is the first time they’ve experienced accomplishment, Castle said.

“They’re here long enough to see that they can exist in a different lifestyle,” Castle said.

Most of parish inmates taking part in the program are in the final stretches of a sentence. All of them are saving money and learning or continuing a career.

The program has had its share of walk-offs, inmates who leave the complex for work, then make a run for it. Julio Naudin, a Sheriff’s Office official, said the inmates who try to escape are never on the lam for long.

The attempt, he said, is usually triggered by an emotional event such as a bad phone conversation with a girlfriend or bad news from home.

Reardon said most will be released from jail within a few years, and everyone — their families, jail officials, society — wants them to stay away from the behavior and the poor choices that landed them behind bars in the first place.

They sleep, shower and eat at the work-release facility. They wash their own clothes and wake up on their own — there’s no guard clanging the bars with a baton. They’re responsible for catching the van to work on time.

They’re preparing for life after jail, Reardon said.

“In all honesty, I wouldn’t have changed without (the program),” 47-year-old Sherod Wilson said.

Convicted for bank fraud that he committed in 2011, Wilson, a Crowley native, catches a correction’s van each day to his job at a local chemical tank company.

Wilson said the process that went into getting the job included being interviewed.

When he’s released in two months, Wilson said, he’ll keep working at the company.

Armen Alexandrian, who runs Neustrom’s work-release program, said that in August, Lafayette Parish’s work-release program will become the second in Louisiana to be accredited by the American Correctional Association. Alexandrian said Lafourche Parish was accredited in the early 2000s.