Donation helps  fund Joseph  Homes

By Bonny Van

The Catholic Commentator 

When Baton Rouge resident Linda Duscoe did not take her annual summer vacation this year, she decided to put the money to good use: she wrote a check to Joseph Homes in Baton Rouge that would cover the cost of six months for apartment No. 2 which is dedicated to the Louisiana Parole Project in honor of Tom Gess, who with his wife Kathy, was “instrumental” in getting Duscoe involved in criminal justice reform.  

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Kathy Gess, left, Linda Duscoe, center, and Paula Schumann, Gess’ daughter, look through a memory book of the number of ex-offenders who have been helped by staying in apartment No. 2 at Joseph Homes. Duscoe gave a donation in honor of Kathy’s husband, Tom Gess, to pay for rent on the apartment, which is dedicated to the LA Parole Project. Photos by Bonny Van | The Catholic Commentator

 

“I wasn’t going to California this past year and I thought, instead of going to California I could do something else nice,” said Duscoe. “And, it’s like one thing in life leads to something else and this couple has been so very dedicated to each other and then, of course, to the issue of criminal justice. It’s nice to advocate for people who have been advocates.”  

Tom and Kathy Gess worked tirelessly for criminal justice reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, “when no one was doing it,” according to Kerry Myers, communications director for the Parole Project.   

“They (Tom and Kathy) would try to talk to legislators about reforms,” said Myers. “They were advocating for changes a long time ago. They were the lone voices then for what people are doing today. There is now a groundswell of the same things they were saying then that it was a moral issue and good policy to help these people being sentenced to life as children, some of whom were first-time offenders.”  

Tom and Kathy Gess helped revitalize the Louisiana chapter of CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants) and worked with other organizations to reduce crime through criminal justice reform. In 2002, the couple was named national Volunteers of the Year by Catholic Charities USA and in 2003, they received the David A. Hamilton Volunteer of the Year Award by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge. In 2003, Tom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and Kathy became his full-time caregiver. He died in June of 2017 at age 83.  

“I think Tom would really be proud,” said Kathy of the apartment’s dedication to Tom. “It’s nice to see things getting done that we worked on and seemed like nothing was going to happen and now things seem to be happening, you know? That was a good thing.”  

“I’ve now been involved in CURE 18 years,” said Duscoe. “And so then I started doing volunteer work with Joseph Homes and so from there I’m very aware of the needs of criminal justice.”  

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Kathy Gess, left, and Steve Perkins talk about the importance of Joseph Homes to homeless men leaving prison. Perkins, who was recently released from prison after 44 years, is staying in the apartment dedicated to the LA Parole Project.  

 

Joseph Homes is a transitional shelter for homeless ex-offenders. There are 14 apartments including apartment No. 2. This is Duscoe’s second donation for the Parole Project’s apartment, which has a rent of $300 per month. Her first donation took care of the first part of year. The apartment is currently home to Steve Perkins, who was recently released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Perkins was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 17 but due to a 2012 Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, the Court stated that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.  

“I had been at Angola 44 years,” said Perkins. “It’s a whole different world now. Cell phones run the world; there wasn’t even a cell phone when I left.”  

Baton Rouge attorney Keith Nordyke, who is president of the Louisiana Parole Project, said a cell phone comes with the apartment in order to teach cell phone protocol and to provide assistance if necessary.  

“We’ve had guys that have been locked up for 40 years – they get lost, even around the corner, they get lost,” explained Nordyke. “All of our numbers are pre-programmed in and they can call one of us 24-hours-a-day and we’ll find them or be able to talk them back to Joseph Homes.”  

“Well, not me,” laughed Perkins. “I’ve been pretty careful.”  

Perkins does admit, however, that without the Parole Project and the apartment he is temporarily staying in, he “would be lost.”  

“I’m from Baton Rouge and I don’t even recognize it no more,” he said.  

“Many of the people just stay here a few weeks and many of them move on to Opelousas for long-term transition after 40 years of incarceration,” said Linda Fjeldsjo, coordinator of Joseph Homes. “This is just what I call an ‘exhale period,’ but also an opportunity to get some life skills, from technology, operating a cell phone to getting a driver’s license.”  

“They’ve never pumped their own gas because that was done for you when you went to prison,” added Nordyke. “It’s a different world. If they came from New Orleans, for example, their home may not be there because of (Hurricane) Katrina, so we also spend a lot of time reintegrating them with a family member, so not only do we use this as a decompression period, the first two weeks, we get them a driver’s license, we sign them up for all the services, Medicaid and so forth.”  

According to Nordyke, without the temporary residence that the apartment at Joseph Homes provides, there would be no way to teach the men how to survive and succeed. And, mentors who work with the Parole Project have spent time in prison, a teaching tool that can only be learned through experience.  

“They’ve been there,” said Nordyke. “They’ve done re-entry and it’s reach back, learn one, teach one. That’s the way it works.”  

For now, without the worry of room and board, Perkins is ready to start his new life. He said he wants to go to work and become a “tax-paying citizen.” So, what does it mean to be able to stay in this apartment for Perkins?  

“Everything! I wouldn’t have a place to stay. They take me around, they teach me about finances, and they got so many great people,” said Perkins. “Since I’ve been here two weeks, everything is just lined up. They’re a blessing to me. Without them, I don’t know where I’d be.”