Ronald Kemper, who is serving time for multiple felony burglary counts, said he will leave Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola better off than when he arrived.
It's a rare claim to hear from an inmate. Ninety-five percent of people sentenced to jail in Louisiana will eventually be released, and when they get out many of them will face challenges trying to acclimate back into their communities.
When Kemper leaves jail, he'll have a job waiting for him, likely in the automotive industry where he's already received two industry certifications to fix brakes and transmissions. Kemper is one of 183 Louisiana inmates from 13 different parishes participating in a court ordered re-entry program.
"It changed me a lot. I have never had a career-type of job," Kemper said in an interview on Friday at an automotive training facility at Angola. "I feel optimistic that I will have the help. I want a career and I want a good life."
Yes, Louisiana is the incarceration capital of the world. But criminal justice advocates also say Louisiana's limited re-entry program housed at Angola is the gold standard for how to rehabilitate criminals and prevent them from re-offending when they are eventually released back into society.
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Gene Mills, president of the Louisiana Family Forum and a proponent of the prison reforms, said on a Friday tour of Angola that the re-entry court program should be expanded and replicated across the state. He said it's a glowing example of the value and efficacy of rehabilitation programs for criminals.
"How do you reform corrections smartly? For me, you have to rehabilitate people wisely," he said.
The re-entry program was created in the Legislature in 2010 and has since been expanded to 13 parishes. District attorneys and judges in those parishes can select non-violent offenders, who are not sex offenders, and are sentenced to less than 10 years in jail to the Angola re-entry program where they receive daily job training and additional supports.
While Angola is known for housing inmates with the longest sentences, the campus has for years had in place an infrastructure where inmates were receiving morality coaching -- through its partnership with the New Orleans Baptist Seminary – and other job training.
That's why the state program for those inmates with shorter sentences landed at Angola. The re-entry program also benefits from funding provided by the annual Angola rodeo, which pays for job training equipment.
The inmates are part of Angola's general population but live in their own dormitory. And both Angola's traditional population and participants in the re-entry program have access to the rehabilitation programming.
Angola offers 14 industry-based certifications in areas including welding, brick masonry, automotive, HVAC repair and horticulture. Re-entry court inmates have earned more than 250 certifications since 2010.
Inmates in the re-entry program must serve at least two years. But the average completer is released after 26 months, said Francis Abbott, the program's classification officer.
Photos: Tour group sees vocational re-entry instruction for Angola inmates
A group of people interested in criminal justice reform programs visited several sites at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola Friday, May 26, 2017, touring facilities used for re-entry vocational training for non-violent offenders, in the Offender Rehabilitation and Workforce Development Program there. They also spoke both with long-term inmates mentoring other inmates, and those who have release opportunities in their near future. Angola offers 14 industry-based certifications in areas including welding, brick masonry, automotive, HVAC repair and horticulture. Re-entry court inmates have earned more than 250 certifications since 2010.
Prior to release, the offender will have a "re-entry accountability plan" which includes a place to live, a job and community supports, including substance abuse treatments and counseling. Families of the inmates are also offered counseling services. Officials said many Louisiana businesses have partnered with them to find skilled workers including local automotive dealerships and Entergy. On Friday, representatives from Bernhard MCC, a mechanical construction firm, chatted with inmates who were receiving HVAC training.
But the commitment is rigorous. Inmates have to complete 90 days of counseling and substance abuse treatment before they start their classes. They'll learn about parenting, maintaining a budget and interviewing for jobs. Their workforce training classes are five days a week from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every day.
About 500 people have been sentenced to the re-entry program since 2010 and 171 either dropped out or were removed. There have been 127 completers of the program.
Abbott said of the offenders who completed the program, 13 percent have committed new felony offenses over a three year period.
"These people are going to return to our communities, better or worse," said Judge Scott Schlegal, from the 24th Judicial District Court in Gretna. "And the answer is going to be worse without programs like this."
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The Legislature is still considering 10 criminal justice reform bills which are intended to take the state from a "tough on crime" mindset to a "smart on crime" approach. About half of the bills are intended to reduce the risk of offenders committing another crime when the are released from jail, but reducing the financial burdens on them and increasing opportunities to achieve occupational licenses.
Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, told inmates on Friday that their efforts to rehabilitate themselves would not go unnoticed.
"There are people working on your behalf out there," he said. "We're trying to put a new face on corrections in this state."