Past is future outside Lonnie Cooley’s new temporary home.
Smack across Perdido Street from the ex-convict’s new front porch, an infamous “bridge to nowhere” towers unconnected above the space between the two buildings that compose Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s new jail complex, still under construction.
What will go in the middle remains the subject of heated political debate.
What won’t go there, on the other side of a razor wire fence, is Cooley, he promises.
The 58-year-old parolee arrived at this freshly painted and tiled house on Aug. 13, the same day he left David Wade Correctional Center for an anxious, six-hour Greyhound bus ride to New Orleans after 38 years in prison on an armed robbery conviction.
“I know what it represents. I know what’s on the other side. I know why they’re on the other side,” says Cooley, 58. “I’m on this side now. It feels something wonderful.”
Cooley milled about Wednesday amid a ribbon-cutting party for the newly opened “First 72+” transitional house, where just-released ex-cons like Cooley — a group that Mayor Mitch Landrieu called “our returning citizens” — will get a chance to find their way.
“You can’t just come back and not have a way to stand back up again,” Landrieu said.
“It should be patently obvious that the more you spend on the back end, the less you spend on the front end. We all know it’s a broken system.”
The project, the first of its kind in New Orleans, is the brainchild of ex-convicts Norris Henderson and Calvin Duncan and others who created a nonprofit organization to help in the early days and months when released inmates must acclimate abruptly to life outside prison and to the streets they left years before.
They are days and months often marked by uncertainty and myriad practical concerns: Finding a bed. Getting a Social Security card and a driver’s license. Learning how to use cellphones. Crossing streets. Avoiding trouble.
“I basically had to rebuild a whole life,” said 40-year-old Nathan Brown, the first client to stay at the house following his release in June after 17 years behind bars on a rape conviction.
Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick agreed to vacate Brown’s conviction after DNA testing revealed another man’s genetic markers.
Retail stores Brown once knew — his geographical markers — were gone.
“Everything looked like a historical monument,” he said. Back when he was sent off to prison, “if you had a cellphone, you were a lawyer or a doctor.”
The new house, with room for five returning inmates in three bedrooms, is meant to allow them to live there at least three months to sort out their lives.
Classes in job readiness and training, social skills and health and fitness will be offered at the house with the help of the Innocence Project New Orleans, said Duncan, who himself left prison in 2011 after 28 years and found himself scrapping for a place to live.
In some ways, he said, the outside world can be scarier than the one behind prison walls.
“You’re coming from an environment where people are kind to you,” he said. “Then you come out here and people run game on you.”
Landrieu, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, several judges, would-be judges and other politicos gathered under a baking sun to eat barbecue and roam through the tidy home, which organizers fixed up inside while adding a back deck.
Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter, who along with Judge Laurie White runs a re-entry program for state inmates, looked up from the front yard at the jail construction across the street, saying he hoped it would serve as a stark reminder for residents there.
“You have more of this,” Hunter said of the new house, “and you have less of that (jail construction). That’s what it’s all about.”
The project falls under the umbrella of Pastor Tyrone Smith’s Next Generation of Original Morning Star Full Gospel Baptist Church.
“We’re trying to rid our city of the word ‘recidivism,’ ’’ said Henderson, executive director of the group Voice of the Ex-Offender.
Blair Boutte, a bail bondsman and veteran political consultant, provided the house. Boutte said he approached Henderson, and they all worked to ready the property for former convicts.
“I hear a lot of talk about the condition of the jail. I’d like to talk about the condition of this house,” Boutte said. “You don’t have to be innocent to come here. You have to be willing to make a change.”
Duncan said a board of directors will screen and interview possible occupants. As former prisoners themselves, he said, they can tell who’s ready.
Before Nathan Brown came to the house about a month ago, when it was finally ready, Duncan put him up.
Now Brown, who was eating a plate of food on the back porch, is out, moving Monday into his own apartment in New Orleans East. He also has started work as a cook and dishwasher at a Bywater cafe. At 40, he’s making room for three grandchildren he’s rarely seen.
“The finances are a little tight,” he said, “but the fear is gone I used to have.”
Cooley was referred by parole officials, although he also knew Duncan and Henderson from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He’s now the only occupant of the house, living in a single bedroom that he calls “my little den.”
On the wall hangs a flat-screen TV, on the bedstand rests a book of scripture and in the closet are a couple of suits that Cooley bought with money he saved in prison.
His armed robbery was in Madison Parish, and his conviction was legitimate, he said, although “no one got hurt or shot.”
Cooley said he’s still getting his bearings.
“The trauma of being released, it just didn’t exist for me. I’m not wrestling with major issues. I have time to figure out what I want to do and how I want to do it,” he said.
“I have all these guys around me. You got to be a straight idiot to be tripped up on this situation.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.