In a frenzy of media attention and after hundreds of last-minute sentence recalculations, almost 2,000 state prisoners were freed Nov. 1. Dozens more like them followed, released days to months early under the state's new criminal justice reforms. 

Many were dropped off at local probation and parole offices by prison buses. Some were picked up just after the tick of midnight by family or friends. Others used a paid bus ticket to head back to society, expected to check in with a parole officer within 72 hours. 

They are free because of Act 280, which says nonviolent, non-sex-crime offenders could shorten their sentences more quickly for good behavior, a change that cut their mandatory time from 40 percent of their original sentences to 35 percent.

The change was met by some criticism, mostly by district attorneys and other law enforcement officials who said the releases were rushed. They said the ex-prisoners were unprepared and would quickly commit new crimes. Of the 2,000 prisoners released that first day, 76 have been rearrested — though corrections officials say that number is not higher than normal for people released from prison.

The Advocate followed four released inmates as they re-entered society.


'I just wanted answers for my brother:' Frederick Williams, 57, dies just as he was getting his life back on track

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Frederick Williams is a Nov. 1 releasee from prison, and talks about his adjustment to society, getting a driver's license and getting a job.

Frederick Williams was dropped off at the Baton Rouge-area probation and parole office on Nov. 1 with about 20 other ex-prisoners from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center.

He had recalled looking around on the bus thinking, 'You going to make it? I’m going to make it.’

Forty-nine days later, on a mild December afternoon, the 57-year-old proudly signed his application for an apartment off Greenwell Springs Road, a red tie in his white button-down shirt.

“You will never have a problem with me,” Williams told the apartment manager, grinning. “This is my start.”

Williams had been working on a list since his release from prison: reconnect with family, obtain his driver's license, find an apartment, get a job. He had been slowly moving forward, checking off his successes, trying not to get discouraged.

But then, around 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 20 — the day after he was offered a job as a cook with the East Baton Rouge Council on Aging, the last big milestone he wanted to reach — paramedics responded to a call about a person in the roadway. Williams was found seriously injured on Greenwell Springs Road, his bike nearby, about a mile from his apartment. He was taken to the hospital and released the following afternoon, his family said.

His sister picked him up, stopped at Walgreens for his prescribed medicine and took him to her Baker home. Within hours of his hospital release, Williams died.

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'I thank God for everything:' John Trahan, 53, letting faith, work ethic guide his new life

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John Trahan was recently released from prison as a result of the Nov. 2017 prison reforms, and has been in a work release program, doing construction jobs. He was photographed at his house next to his work van, Friday, Jan. 26, 2018.

Last fall, John Trahan heard fellow inmates talking about criminal justice reform but didn't pay much attention. His job working in construction for Collis Temple Contractors through the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office's work-release program kept him busy, and he knew his freedom date was coming up the following year.

But one October night, he gave in to the growing excitement and asked a corrections officer to check his release date.

"And my date changed," the 53-year-old said, grinning. "I just fell to my knees and looked up in the air and said, 'God, thank you! Thank you! Only you can do it!' "

He laughed, imagining how everyone around him must have thought he was crazy.

"It was a blessing from the Lord," Trahan said. "I kept praying that they'd let me get out to see my family again."

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Make 'em laugh: Jerome White, 33, finds a new calling after early release from prison -- comedy

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Jerome White is interviewed about life after being released along with thousands of other non-violent offenders as part of the States's early release program in New Orleans, La., Friday, Jan. 19, 2018. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled Louisiana Legislature passed a package of new criminal justice laws in order to reduce Louisiana's incarceration rate which is the highest in the nation.

It didn’t take Jerome White long to start putting his life back together. On Nov. 4, four days after his release from prison, he got engaged.

White hid a ring in a slice of cake and gave it to his girlfriend, a childhood friend who stood by him during his years behind bars.

“There’s no non-corny way to propose, if you ask me,” he said.

Since then, White’s life has continued to change at a breakneck pace. The former high school football player with an infectious laugh has moved in with his fiancée in New Orleans' Central City, reconnected with his four children from a previous marriage and found work in an unusual occupation for a recent parolee — comedy.

White, 33, spent four years in prison for vehicular homicide while he was drunk. The recent changes to Louisiana’s criminal justice laws brought him an extra six months of freedom, including Thanksgiving and Christmas.

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His mantra is patience: Tony Green, 46, is rebuilding his life one step at a time with help from strong support group

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Tony Green talks on the phone as he stand on Iberville Street across the street from his apartment building in mid-city after being released along with thousands of other non-violent offenders as part of the States's early release program in New Orleans, La., Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled Louisiana Legislature passed a package of new criminal justice laws in order to reduce Louisiana's incarceration rate which is the highest in the nation.

Words tend to tumble out of Tony Green’s mouth, but when he talks about his hardest days in prison, his voice slows almost to a halt. His mother, Linda K. Green, died on April 14, 2012, toward the start of his nine-year stint in state custody.

Nobody at the prison told Green.

“When you lose the mother that brought you into this world, and you wasn’t informed or you didn’t know what was going on, it was devastating,” he said.

Green, 46, of New Orleans, has spent most of his adult life incarcerated, most recently after getting caught up in a gun and drug bust in St. Bernard Parish. His initial release date was in April 2019, but Louisiana’s criminal justice reforms pushed that forward to Nov. 8.

Since then Green’s mantra has been patience. There are so many things he wants to accomplish — from owning a car to starting an auto repair business — but he knows from prior experience that he has to move purposefully.

Like many parolees, Green has relied on an informal network that includes loved ones, friends, his congregation and a nonprofit group dedicated to smoothing the transition.

“I have so many people counting on me to be who I am now as opposed to who I was,” he said.

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Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432