It is easy to think of sending someone to Angola as a gone-for-good sentence, but in fact, many of those inmates will return to society when they complete their time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. But at Angola as at other state prisons, the return to society isn’t always the end of their careers behind bars: 1 of every 2 inmates who steps outside the gates of a Louisiana correctional facility will end up back inside within five years.
Those statistics have haunted corrections and police officials for years, in part because the numbers are so difficult to change.
Society is not particularly kind to ex-inmates, even those with the best of intentions for going straight. And too many of the young people who are in jail missed out on schooling that might make them more competitive for a job and thus more stability in their lives.
That is why the state, as well as the private sector, has been supportive of a new effort to train inmates at a skill.
A program created by the Legislature in 2010 allows judges to work with prosecutors to select nonviolent offenders facing sentences of 10 years or less — except for sex crimes — and send them not to parish correctional centers but to the Big House, Angola.
There, they spend at least two years learning a trade, getting their GED certificate for high school and receiving counseling from mentors serving life sentences. Upon release, they are subject to an intense probationary period that includes curfews, drug testing and treatment. The skills include in-demand occupations like air-conditioning repair, but the skills of learning to work every day and be respectful, and respected, as a workman are probably just as important.
A group of faith leaders recently toured the program in a group led by state District Judge Scott Schlegel, of Jefferson Parish. “Regardless of what you feel about sentencing, if it’s not a life sentence, they will re-enter society,” he told the delegation. “So what do we do as a community? Do we simply sentence them and have them just come back, or do we set it up so that when they come back, they can have success?”
We commend those who are answering that question with constructive ways to bring those willing to turn from crime back into society as contributors, not negative influences.
The Angola program is not unique, because many prisons around the state have sought to grapple with the same issues of recidivism, the failure of ex-inmates to succeed after their jail time. The state Department of Corrections works to change things with its workforce programs, as do local jails; retiring Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mike Neustrom is among the leaders at the local level, where shorter-term literacy programs can be particularly important. Boosters of “re-entry” policies include Mayor Mitch Landrieu, of New Orleans.
Even with the best of intentions, it’s still a tough assignment for the corrections system at any level.
Difficulties in getting a regular job after doing time are daunting. Further, the state’s follow-up system of probation and parole officers is underfunded, with too many ex-offenders in the system.
Louisiana has to grapple with its sentencing issues, as it did not become the world leader in incarcerations per capita for nothing. But it is also vital that Louisiana continue to provide training and schooling that make re-entry into society possible for inmates. The lack of literacy and a marketable skill stack the deck in favor of relapsing into a life of crime, with potentially high costs to victims, inmates’ families and the offenders themselves.