Henry Smith walks past rows of kennels housing hundreds of Baton Rouge's lost and abandoned dogs. Some dogs poke their noses through the bars or bark loudly for attention while others sit quietly, uncertain of their new surroundings.
Smith relates to the animals more than most. He spent four decades in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, sentenced to life without parole for a crime he committed at age 15.
At times, he slips and calls the kennels cells.
"I hate seeing them in these cages," he said. "These animals didn't commit a crime."
Smith, now 55, was released in October, gaining parole eligibility after recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions found that life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional in most cases. He has been working at Companion Animal Alliance in Baton Rouge for about a month, hired through a new partnership between the shelter and the Louisiana Parole Project, which helps former state prisoners re-enter society after decades behind bars.
The Baton Rouge nonprofit provides various services for its clients — many of whom were juvenile lifers like Smith — including housing, some financial assistance and help with job applications. Several clients have recently started working at Companion Animal Alliance since leaders of both organizations recognized the potential benefits.
In August 2011, an earnest animal advocacy group took over the animal shelter in East Baton Rouge Parish with the aim of transforming a place …
Jillian Sergio, the shelter's executive director, said the men are hardworking and respectful, but most importantly they show an extraordinary degree of empathy for the animals under their care.
Smith spent years working with horses in Angola, where he also befriended dogs that ended up living in the prison's barn.
Pets aren't allowed in the apartments owned by the Parole Project, but Smith has already chosen a canine companion he plans to bring home from the shelter once he's able to find alternative housing — a female blue heeler mix who Smith said was timid and scared at first, shrinking away when the handlers entered her kennel. Now, she climbs onto his lap for cuddles, nuzzling into his shirt and gazing up at his face.
Smith's ultimate dream is to buy some land and adopt a bunch of dogs. He wants to give them room to run. But for now, he's focused on cleaning kennels and getting back on his feet, adjusting to his own newfound freedom.
David Johnson, one of Smith's co-workers at the shelter who was also recently released after decades behind bars, said he was nicknamed the "cat whisperer" at Angola because of the relationships he formed with the dozens of stray cats who inhabit the prison.
Johnson also refers to cleaning the cats' "cells" and insists that all members of God's kingdom deserve a second chance and a loving home. He left behind four cats of his own when he was arrested at age 24. He's now 68, struggling to use the computers and cellphones that didn't exist back then.
Hayward Jones stands before his students and writes two words on the chalkboard: self development.
That's a common challenge for people who spend most of their lives locked up, said Kerry Myers, deputy director of the Parole Project. Finding the men decent jobs — at places that will hire them despite their criminal records — is another.
Myers said partnering with the animal shelter has been huge.
"It's a beautiful job with beautiful people," said Jimmie Puckett, 66, another former inmate who was recently released after the state Legislature approved parole eligibility for a small group of lifers sentenced in the 1970s. He beamed describing the recent purchase of his first car, a 2003 Suburban he drives to work every day, and his plans for Christmas — the first time he'll celebrate with family in over 40 years.
His biggest goal is to demonstrate that he can be a productive member of society, providing an example of successful rehabilitation, he said. "By the grace of God, I got my life back. Now it's my job to make the most of it."