Welcome Home aims to give ex-offenders a new start _lowres

Advocate photo by MARY RICKARD - Dolfinette Martin works at New Orleans Pretrial Services where she began as a summer intern. “I was grateful that these people saw something in me. I am the same kind of person they’re fighting for,” she said.

Dolfinette Martin served seven years in the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel for shoplifting clothes worth $752.

“I paid for it,” she told a Dillard University crowd that had come together to discuss ways to improve the support network for ex-offenders trying to reintegrate into society.

“Nobody was reaching out to me in my hood. My hood taught me to sell dope,” said Martin, now an administrative assistant about to earn her associate’s degree from Delgado Community College.

“I didn’t have a clue who could help me,” she said.

Martin was shown how to format a resume and given answers to standard interview questions, but no real help finding a job.

“We can get somebody a Ph.D., but if nobody’s willing to hire them when they get out, all they’ve got is the hood,” said Rhett Covington, assistant secretary of the Louisiana Department of Corrections.

Resources currently available to ex-offenders are poorly coordinated, making re-entry challenging. Over half of men and women released to Orleans and Jefferson parishes end up back in jail.

“That’s why it’s important to get all the stakeholders in the same space to get a broader perspective and understand what is needed,” said Mark Walters, a community organizer at The Micah Project, a faith-based organization with 16 member congregations. Micah has been collaborating with St. Vincent de Paul and the Catholic Archdiocese for about three years to create a more holistic approach.

“We’re asking the faith community to step outside their comfort zone and find ways to help each other,” Walters said.

The Rev. William Barnwell, a retired Episcopal pastor, wanted to coordinate efforts and organized “Welcome Home Sunday,” recently held to bring together church leaders, representatives from the Louisiana Department of Corrections and Angola State Penitentiary, Sheriff Marlin Gusman and U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite.

“We all have different priorities and perspectives on sentencing and about how to prevent crime, but one of the things we have in common is supporting re-entry,” Barnwell said. “The better chances that ex-offenders have when they get out, the better it is for everybody.”

Louisiana has some of the harshest sentencing laws in the nation. A majority of incarcerated people — 64 percent — are serving time for nonviolent offenses, including shoplifting.

“We live in a state with more people incarcerated than anyplace in the world,” U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite told the Dillard audience. “Incarcerating people for longer periods of time and then stigmatizing them for life simply has not worked.”

His office created the 30-2-2 program, which aims to enlist 30 firms to each hire two ex-offenders for two years.

“The way that we are pursuing justice is beginning to change,” Polite said.

Above all, “Welcome Home Sunday” underscored the role churches can play to de-stigmatize ex-offenders. Sunday’s speeches were interlaced with the Bible story of the Prodigal Son. In the parable, the father rejoiced even when his son returned penniless.

“[The son] didn’t look all over for who could help him. He went back to his father’s house,” said Dr. Debra Morton, pastor of Greater St. Stephen Full Baptist Church. “When people come to themselves, we should celebrate.”

Archbishop Gregory Aymond reminded everyone that Jesus himself was a prisoner and visited prisons. “He talked the talk, but also walked the walk.”

“The God we know is a God of a second chance, sometimes a third chance,” the archbishop said.