Each year, more than 15,000 of the 70,000 men incarcerated in Louisiana’s state and parish prisons are released, according to state records. About half of them commit more crimes and eventually return to prison.

One of the reasons they end up back in jail is because they have no home, said Linda G. Fjeldsjo, coordinator of prison ministries for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge.

“They get dropped off at the Greyhound bus station with a $20 debit card, and many of them don’t even have an address to go to,” Fjeldsjo said. “Some of them have a plan, but a month or two after they get out, their plan crumbles and they find themselves homeless on the street or at an emergency shelter. It’s no wonder half return to prison within five years.”

That’s why the diocese recently opened a new building, which doubled the capacity of its Joseph Homes transitional housing program. Located at the corner of South 11th Street and North Boulevard, the new two-story building has eight single-room apartments where eight men are now living.

Joseph Homes is both a ministry and a secular nonprofit corporation, which allowed the new building to be funded by the City of Baton Rouge Office of Community Development and The Huey & Angelina Wilson Foundation. Some furniture was donated by the LSU Phi Mu Sorority, according to the diocese.

The new building is located across a narrow parking lot from a single-story, cinder-block building of seven efficiency apartments donated to the diocese in 1990 by the Floyd W. Womack Jr. family. It is named “Joseph Home” after then-Bishop Stanley Joseph Ott.

While the 15 resident men have a roof over their head and an address for job applications, they’re not on vacation by any means, Fjeldsjo explained. They’re expected to find a job, remain drug-free, pass random drug screens, participate in a 12-step program and attend a weekly support group meeting.

They must have been released from prison within the past year, have been homeless and are not convicted sex offenders, she said.

Once they find a job, they pay $75 a week, and if they fail a drug test or even “dabble” in alcohol or drugs, she said, they’re expelled. “I tell them they put themselves out.”

Over the past 25 years, about 750 men have called Joseph Home their ‘home,’ said David Aguillard, executive director of the diocese’s Catholic Charities, in a news release. “This program benefits the men, their families and our society as a whole because unstable housing and a weak support network is the No. 1 reason men return to old habits.”

Aguillard credits Fjeldsjo and case worker Laverne Klier for helping the men. He said the program’s graduates are five times less likely than other ex-offenders to return to prison, and that 85 percent of them leave with a job and 70 percent establish a household.

Must be a ‘heart change’

Since the facility receives some federal funding, “we don’t force people to go to Mass or only accept Catholics,” Fjeldsjo said, “but we do urge all of them to find a church family. They need to surround themselves with a positive support system.

“Connecting with a church family can really mean the difference between returning to prison or the streets,” she said. “If there is not a conversion of faith or of their heart — no matter what their faith may be — it’s just a matter of time. It won’t stick.’”

Tracy Barber, 32, a heavy equipment operator, welder and tattoo artist from Bogalusa, was recently released from Hunt Correctional Facility and just moved into the new apartment building.

“I’m clean and sober and my goal is to stay in this program as long as I can,” Barber said. “I want to get me a good welding job. I’ve got to get a vehicle. I just want to be normal. I’m tired of the way I’ve been living.”

He never attended church growing up but while in prison he attended Catholic services and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, RCIA, program.

“I prayed a lot. I really got down on my knees and prayed the rosary,” Barber said. “I quit smoking after 15 years, and now I can’t stand cigarettes.

“Everybody says when they get out (of prison) the first thing they want to do is get high,” Barber said, shaking his head, “but when I got out, I told my dad, I need to get in this program. I need to get straight,” he said, slapping the back of his right hand into his left palm, “because if I don’t go there I’m gonna wind up on the street again. I’m scared of the street.”

Barber said he never had structure in his life until he came to Joseph Homes.

“This place feels great,” he said. “This is my home. This program is the best program I’ve ever even heard of. I’ve been to a couple and there’s nothing like this.”

Marshall Spires, 48, was homeless and has been living at the apartments for about three weeks.

He was moving from a cinder-block apartment into an upstairs apartment in the new building one recent afternoon.

“I’m a welder by trade and have been working for a lawn care service,” Spires said. “I like it. I’m comfortable here. So far so good.”

Fjeldsjo has received about 300 applications for the program in the last few months, an indication of how great the need is. They can always use financial donations and volunteers to help the men learn to read and perform simple every day tasks like balancing a check book, she said.

“All of them could use a friend, someone to listen to their story with a compassionate ear,” she said. “Just knowing someone cares enough to spend an hour a week means the world to them.”

Carol Spruell, communications coordinator for the diocese’s Catholic Charities, said the program is another example of Christ’s biblical mandate.

“It is what our mission calls us to do,” Spruell said, quoting Matthew 25:36, “I was in prison and you came unto me.”

For more information, call Fjeldsjo at (225) 336-4406, or visit ccdiobr.org.