In less than six months, one of the most dangerous and dreaded dormitories at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel has become one of the most peaceful. Some of worst offenders housed there for infractions have started turning over weapons. And many, for the first time, are staying out of trouble for months on end.
Prison officials — and the inmates involved — credit the transformation to a radical transition program, which pairs the prison's most difficult offenders with volunteer offender mentors, who live together for 45 days focusing on rehabilitation.
“Even in prison, you can find happiness and purpose, and that’s what y’all decided to find and you found it," said Elayn Hunt Deputy Warden Perry Stagg, who spoke Friday afternoon at a graduation ceremony honoring almost 30 prisoners who completed the 45-day program and have since remained discipline-free as well their mentors. "Y’all have transformed the atmosphere in prison.”
The program, developed and run by inmates who had experience working at the reentry program at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, targets problem inmates who have consistently been a problem for staff, and offers them the chance to change. They live in the dorms with their mentors — typically older, model prisoners —and together go through programming like anger management, substance abuse and parenting. After a successful 45 days, they return to the general population dormitories where they are again matched with a mentor to support them.
“Not only did we volunteer to do the program, we volunteered to live back there with them," said Henry Fisher, who has been in prison for more than 20 years for drug convictions and has since become a pastor, and now one of the mentors. "I gave up everything to go back there … because I can make a difference."
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Wade Joseph Jr. has been in prison for four years after being convicted of armed robbery, and while he always wanted to better himself, he said he often hit bumps in the road.
"It was most definitely a growth process," Joseph, 25, said Friday, joined by his dad and stepmom. "This is only a glimpse of what the future might hold if I continue to make the right choices and decisions.”
As Joseph’s stepmom listened to the prison staff speak about the progress the men had made, she grew emotional.
“I realized just how dedicated he had become to his own personal growth. That was really heartwarming for me,” said Brendell Joseph. “In such an oppressive environment … that he was able to reach down within himself and decide by himself that he would start to move toward change. I’m extremely proud of him.”
The vast majority of the men who go through the program will eventually return to society, Stagg said, so being able to change their lives while they’re in prison is beneficial for all of society.
About 30 inmates were honored Friday, of them two, including Joesph, have gone on to become mentors themselves.
“You take a guy who needed this program because they were so lost in their life and what they were doing, and now they’ve come through the program and become mentors themselves," Stagg said. "That’s what it’s all about.”
As 27-year-old Tyrone Epps accepted his certificate commemorating his completion of the program and since staying discipline-free, his father smiled his way. However, Epps' father, Tyrone Allen, hadn't traveled far for the ceremony like many of Epps' peers — he is also incarcerated at the prison.
"We gotta break the cycle," the younger Epps said, his father in a matching blue shirt and jeans, nodding. Epps' son, also named Tyrone, is now 9 years old, he said. Despite his first almost 10 years in prison for manslaughter, much of which was riddled with violence and trouble, Epps said now he wants to become a mentor for the transition program.
"It really helped," Epps said. "(I want to) put all that negative energy and turn it into positive."