One of every two inmates who steps outside the gates of a Louisiana correctional facility will end up back inside within five years, having succumbed to any number of forces that can conspire to make a lie out of promises to go straight.

Former inmates who stumble ultimately fall prey to their own bad decisions, but a lack of job skills and education, mental health and substance abuse problems, prohibitions on employment and frayed ties to community and family all make successful re-entry exceedingly difficult for ex-convicts.

A program created by the Legislature in 2010 aims to change that, allowing 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 Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

There, they spend at least two years learning a trade, getting their GED 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 idea, Jefferson Parish Judge Scott Schlegel explained last week on a tour of the program at Angola, is to find offenders who want to change and break the cycle that can lead a nonviolent criminal to commit more serious crimes once back in society.

“Regardless of what you feel about sentencing, if it’s not a life sentence, they will re-enter society,” he told a busload of faith-based leaders and others Thursday. “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?”

‘I know what I have to do’

Standing at the head of Angola’s HVAC classroom, 26-year-old Corey Eshleman, of Folsom, was asked to tell the visitors who he was when he came to the prison in September 2013 after being convicted on drug, weapon and arson charges.

“I was 122 pounds soaking wet and strung out on any drug I could get my hands on,” Eshleman said, adding that he has been sober for 2 ½ years.

Eshleman, one of about 100 inmates now in the Offender Rehabilitation and Workforce Development Program, is getting certified for repair and installation of air and heating systems, one of Angola’s most intensive courses.

Others include small engine repair, welding, heavy equipment operation, plumbing, masonry, eyewear technician and horticulture. The program soon will have a course in fiber optics.

When it comes to rehabilitation, Eshleman said he hasn’t proven anything yet, but “I know what I have to do.”

His goal, he said, is to “not ever come back to a place like this, unless I do it to help someone.”

John Sheehan, a master certified automotive technology instructor and lifer who came to Angola almost three decades ago for second-degree murder, said students work on the cars owned by staff members.

“It’s real-world problems my guys get to work on in this shop,” he said, noting the next group of students will be brought to Baton Rouge on Tuesday to take the test to become ASE-certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.

His class has an 83 percent passing rate.

“That’s what tells me we’re doing something right,” he said.

The re-entry program also relies on social mentors — lifers who have graduated from the New Orleans Baptist Seminary at Angola — to provide counseling.

Some, like Justin Singleton, who was found guilty of being a principal to second-degree murder 12 years ago, are both vocational instructors and counselors.

Singleton said the moral coaching is just as important as job training.

“All we’ve done is made a smarter criminal if we don’t change their heart and mind,” he said.

Singleton, who teaches small engine repair, described his men as boys who have “been loved less and loved wrong,” getting most of their affirmation from bad influences.

“When they get here, it’s my job to love them the right way,” he said. “And it’s something I take seriously.”

“These men,” he said, “have an opportunity that we don’t have.”

‘We all made mistakes’

Sidney Deloch, another of Angola’s roughly 70 mentors, said being sent to prison robbed him of his chance to raise his own children.

So now he makes himself available at all hours.

“It’s an opportunity to send part of me back into society,” he said.

“We all made mistakes, we all tore up the community and we all tore up our neighborhoods, so who better to fix it?” he said.

With six inmates scheduled to arrive Monday — including the first three from Jefferson Parish — the re-entry program will have 107 enrolled. They are part of Angola’s general population but stay in their own dormitory.

The program has graduated 73 participants — 59 from Orleans Parish, 13 from St. Tammany and one from Lafayette.

East Baton Rouge is among the roughly 10 parishes that participate in the program, but it has sent only two or three inmates to Angola, Assistant Warden Perry Stagg said.

Stagg said he calculates the recidivism rate of re-entry program participants at about 19 percent, but he said the Department of Corrections will issue official numbers soon using a more thorough formula and expects to see it come in as low as 12 percent.

While the Louisiana Re-entry Advisory Council estimates the cost of putting an inmate through the re-entry program at between $2,000 and $5,000, Stagg said he has “no idea” what Angola spends on the program.

It is fully funded by the Angola Prison Rodeo and a concession stand, called the Re-entry Club, that sells food to guards and inmates.

Despite the encouraging initial results, Stagg said finding companies willing to hire an ex-con is difficult.

“It’s still a struggle to get a convicted felon hired,” he said, noting that a Lexus dealer who hired an ex-inmate and found him to be hard-working and well-liked by co-workers still balked at taking in another one recently.

“We’ve got to break down the barriers and break down the walls to get people to hire these guys,” he said.

Being ‘smart on crime’

Francis Abbott, the program’s classification officer, said employers can interview re-entry program participants at the prison or via video conferencing from a parole or probation office.

“We try to think outside the box as far as that goes,” he said.

For Schlegel, who led the 24th Judicial District Court’s second tour of the program Thursday, getting the business community involved along with faith-based and community organizations is essential as Jefferson Parish begins its involvement in the program.

Schlegel, who said he saw many repeat offenders keep coming back into the criminal justice system when he was a prosecutor, said 1,633 freed inmates returned to communities in Jefferson Parish last year.

“You can’t throw them away and know nothing about it,” he said. “You have to be involved. If you’re not involved, our community will not be safer. This is not a ‘soft on crime,’ this is a ‘smart on crime’ ” initiative.

Schlegel told the group before they got off the bus Thursday evening back in Jefferson to go and spread the word about the program, saying the court will take as many trips to Angola as needed.

“The reason we take these bus trips is, in two years, these guys will get out,” he said. “If we don’t have (the job placement hurdle) solved before they get out, it is pointless. The last time we went up, one of the offenders said, ‘Nobody is there to meet these guys at the gate.’ If there is nobody there to meet them at the gate, this will not succeed.”

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.