The Catholic Commentator 

Seven days after 55-year-old Ernest Scott of Baton Rouge was released from prison, he visited the Prison Ministry Office of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge looking for help. Scott was among the 1,900 convicted men and women released Nov. 1 as part of Louisiana’s new criminal justice reform package.  

criminal justice reform.tif

Bishop Robert. W. Muench, who has been committed to prison ministry since becoming bishop of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, said at a recent symposium on criminal justice reform, “God is a God of second chances, and sometimes, third or fourth chances.” Here, Bishop Muench celebrated Mass at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, June 17, 2016. Photo by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator

 

Soft-spoken, tired and anxious, Scott was seeking a way to find work and a place to stay.  

“(It’s) very difficult coming out of prison, knowing I have no support from the family, which causes people to do crimes to survive,” he said. “I didn’t find out that I was being released until Oct. 29. Found out through the inmate hotline.”  

Scott was incarcerated in West Feliciana civil parish as part of a work release program. He served a total of 10 years in prison and was able to save enough money to buy a car when he was released. But, with no driver’s license or insurance, a traffic accident or ticket could land him back where he started: in jail.  

Work has been difficult to secure, his record being his albatross. At times, he has been forced to sleep in his car, unable to stay with his either of his two adult children because of Section 8 occupancy regulations.  

Unfortunately, Scott’s story is not unique, as many of the inmates recently released struggle with their own challenges. In fact, at least one of the inmates released Nov. 1 has already been arrested and is back in jail.  

These are the types of scenarios that has many officials, even those working for justice reform, concerned.  

“There are some services such as Joseph Homes (a program of CCDBR), but everybody is just not ready,” said Carl Taylor, shelter supervisor at The Society of St. Vincent de Paul for the Diocese of Baton Rouge and who was incarcerated 20 years ago. “They want things on their own terms. Don’t fit the bill. You can set people up to fail by putting them in a situation that is not going to work.”  

Linda Fjeldsjo, coordinator of the Prison Ministry Office and Joseph Homes for CCDBR, said while the focus in recent months has been on the Nov. 1 released prisoners, this problem is not new for the state, noting that Louisiana, which traditionally is saddled with the highest incarceration rate in the country, releases 18,000 inmates annually.  

“This isn’t a new phenomenon,” she said. “A lot of people want to use this as a scare tactic for the reforms.”  

Fjeldsjo said those in prison ministry see a common theme among a majority of those who are behind bars. 

“In all of our work, we’ve never really worked with any rich, rich clients. Poverty, lack of education, they have no true work history,” she said. “A lot of substance a abuse issues, which a lot have not addressed, the poor transportation system. If we thought it was just one thing, we could eliminate that one thing. There are so many parts to this.” 

Danielle Metz of New Orleans was 26-years-old, with a 7-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, when she was sentenced to three life sentences plus an additional 20 years for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. It was her first offense. 

“I was a first-time, nonviolent offender and I hadn’t had a traffic ticket or parking ticket or anything and that’s what I was sentenced to,” she said. 

Metz had served 23 years and eight months of her sentence when she was granted clemency by President Barack Obama and released Sept. 15, 2016. But, with more than two decades spent behind bars, Metz had a lot of catching up to do in order to navigate through society. She said a friend, who once spent time in prison, helped her apply for college. 

“Because of my sentence, when you’re in prison and you’re serving that kind of time, you can’t take the programs that the people with less time can take,” said Metz. “So, I really just had to educate myself.” 

One year after being released from federal prison in California, Metz, 50, returned to New Orleans to care for her mother, who died in May. She now works two jobs and attends Southern University at New Orleans where she is studying to become a social worker. And, she wants to tell her story.

“I came back and I just think that maybe when somebody hear(s) my voice and hear(s) my story, that I can make a change and let them know what they are up against as far as the judicial system and bad company,” Metz said. 

In Louisiana, data on recidivism shows that 48 percent of ex-offenders end up back behind bars within five years. But, that number drops by half, if returning citizens can stay employed for three years. 

Ronnie Moore, re-entry coordinator for St. Vincent de Paul for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said the first 72 hours after someone is released is crucial to adjusting to newfound freedom. 

“With volunteers and partners and so forth, somebody has to meet them at the gate within the first 72 hours (of release). “(We) make sure they got a place to stay. (We) make sure they are navigated to resources, like where are they going to get their ID’s, very basic stuff,” he said. “We give them a temporary job as well.”

In 2016, the Louisiana Legislature adopted a “Ban the Box” bill, which removed questions about criminal history from state employment applications in an effort to help ex-offenders find jobs. Louisiana is one of 24 states in the U.S. that has adopted the policy. But the measure only covers public employers, not private businesses. 

Johnny Jones, 39, of Ridgeland, Mississippi was released Nov. 1 from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center and thinks “the box” is keeping him from finding a job. Jones, who has a long criminal history, said he realized it was time to change his ways after a heart condition landed him in the medical dorm at the Hunt facility. There, he saw prisoners dealing with health issues, mental illness and dying on regular basis. 

Jones, ready to start anew, had spoken with Fjeldsjo before his release and temporarily stayed at the St. Vincent de Paul Homeless Shelter until he was reunited with his girlfriend in Ridgeland. Now, Jones attends church, works on his computer skills and applies for jobs online in Mississippi, which does not have a ban the box policy. “In life, we make some decisions that’s not good for us, or whatever, but it may be necessary for us to make those bad decisions to become the person that we need to be,” he said. “A lot of people look at the bad and never understand the type of person you are.” 

Natalie LaBorde, deputy assistant secretary for Louisiana’s Department of Corrections, said part of the state’s new criminal justice reform package calls for reinvestment into local prisons, which house more than half of the state’s prison population, to offer more educational and job skills training. 

“I think people need to give it time to take shape,” she said. “I’ve seen on a smaller scale where these similar reforms work in the past. We’re not reinventing the wheel.”